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A WAVE of teenage fanclubby enthusiasm for Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart tells us little about the International Development Secretary, but more about the journalists doodling hearts around his name in their notebooks.
Which is a shame, because Stewart does show us a particular face of the British Establishment: he is roaming Britain like a colonial administrator, asking to meet the tribal chiefs so he can iron out the kinks of his occupation.
For all the pundits chatter about Stewart, they are talking loud – and with love – but saying nothing. ITV’s politics editor Robert Peston gushed that Stewart “electrified” his audience with “lyrical” speeches and was a “proper star.” The Times’s David Aaronovitch bizarrely claimed that “it is so obvious the UK needs a party/alliance” containing Rory Stewart alongside the Lib Dems’ Jo Swinson and Labour’s Keir Starmer. LBC’s James O’Brien claimed “Rory Stewart would absolutely annihilate Jeremy Corbyn in a general election.”
What none of these pundits are doing is talking about how Stewart could become Tory leader, what coalition he could assemble to run in a Conservative leadership election, or a general election, or to form a Cabinet.
They are just saying that they personally like Stewart. They are like theatrical critics, judging his “performance” from their own shallow viewpoint. They are sharing their “feelings” about Stewart with us. And one of those “feelings” is the perpetual search among the punditry for “nice” Tories.
The politics of it are this: Stewart is unlikely to win the Tory leadership campaign, because the party is shifting rightwards and Brexitwards: the Tories feel Corbyn’s Labour is, despite the best efforts of the same pundits, a threatening possible election winner.
They need to raise enthusiasm on their side, among members and voters, for a low-tax, free-market solution, by playing to popular enthusiasm on the right for a sharp Brexit. The pundits are convinced Stewart could appeal to the middle ground – because they believe themselves to be the middle ground.
This is untested, and in an actual election “shifting voters” might not see the Etonian austerity-backer as different from other Tories. But more importantly, Stewart might have a lot more trouble guarding the Tories on their right flank from the Brexit Party. These are all political calculations the Tories make, that you might expect political commentators to explain, if they weren’t too busy getting hot under the collar over their latest crush.
Stewart has, however, managed to raise his profile on the “left” of the Tory Party. Which means he is still pretty right wing. Stewart has attracted some big-name funders for his leadership run, showing he has carved out a place at the Tory top table, even if he is not near leadership: donations to Stewart’s leadership include £10,000 from Khaled Said, son of billionaire arms dealer Wafic Said, who made a huge fortune arranging arms sales from the UK to Saudi Arabia. Said’s family are big Tory donors. Stewart also raised £10,000 from UK-based Lev Mikheev, who made big money investing in the land of his birth, Russia.
Stewart’s backers show that he is not such a different Tory: the TheyWorkForYou website puts it succinctly: “Rory Stewart is a Conservative MP, and on the vast majority of issues votes the same way as other Conservative MPs.” That means for the bedroom tax, welfare cuts and austerity.
A few apparently “soft” words from any Tory is enough to win over the weak-willed “liberal” punditry. They give in easily because they don’t actually face the punishment of austerity.
Perhaps most ridiculously, the one issue of principle the liberal media care about, Brexit, is the one where Stewart will also be first to let them down.
Stewart announced: “My opposition to No Deal is unwavering.” But in minutes, faced with a Labour motion blocking No Deal, he quickly announced he would “NOT be voting for it.”
Poor Sam Gyimah, the only Tory leadership contender who actually backed a second referendum and one of the few who were brave enough to back Labour’s No Deal-blocking motion, must be bemused by the way he got the cold shoulder, while Stewart gets the love hearts.
The haze of emotion for Stewart obscures how he is a particular kind of Tory. Stewart was, before he became an MP, a Foreign Office official who acted as an administrator in the Iraq and Afghan occupations. Stewart’s father was similarly colonial administrator, who went on to become MI6’s second-in-command. This impresses some of the more naive liberal commentators.
I was slightly disappointed to see Adam Hills, host of Channel 4’s The Last Leg – a not-bad comedy-current affairs show – bigging up Rory Stewart’s role helping write the Iraqi constitution, without asking how Stewart, an unelected non-Iraqi, got such a role. Stewart got the job because of the armed occupation of Iraq. Moreover, that very constitution entrenched sectarian division in Iraq, as imperial occupiers like Stewart were hanging on in hostile Iraq by a divide-and rule tactic. The divisive constitution helped perpetuate bloody conflict in Iraq.
Stewart’s approach to UK politics seems marked by this colonial and neo-colonial past. The one difference between Stewart under the TheyWorkForYou analysis is that he “voted against investigations into the Iraq war, while most Conservative MPs generally voted for.”
Moreover, Stewart approaches politics with the slightly disconnected approach of an imperial administrator in a nation they don’t quite understand. Like a newly arrived occupation officer, Stewart is trying to arrange a “big council” or “Loya Jirga” with the “tribal leaders” of the cities – or so it looks, as Stewart is calling for a “citizens’ assembly” with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Nigel Farage.
The reason imperial administrators like these kinds of “tribal chieftan” meetings is, firstly, because they want to deal with the “natives” through “tribal” or “religious” identities rather than talking to actual national leaders as a basic divide-and-rule tactic. They also want the meetings to recognise the basic fact of occupation, but just look at “ironing out the kinks.”
True to form, Rory Stewart’s citizens’ assembly is there to accept May’s Brexit deal, but work out how to implement it. Faced with a Tory politician who treats the UK like some partly understood, newly conquered land to be administered, much of our punditry swoons.
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