Rory in Cheltenham

by Tom George Hammond

It does not take much political engagement, nor even much political thought, to offer a political diagnosis. That an overwhelming proportion of people within the United Kingdom feel entirely unrepresented by their elected Government is not just unsurprising, it is obvious, and it does not require polling data as evidence to prove it, although such data exists in abundance.  Dispiriting as the data is, it would be far more frightening if the reverse were true, and Mr. and Mrs. Comfortable-Chair in Cheltenham felt themselves perfectly voiced in the soundbites and squabbles of Parliamentary discussion.  I mention Cheltenham as I was recently there, at the Literary Festival, an event designed for polite agreement, chortling and the occasional bout of nodding applause.  In the audience of a debate entitled “Is the Party Over?”, organised by The Times newspaper, the sponsor of the festival, there was a constant jamboree of all of the above; with the marquee names of Jess Phillips and Rory Stewart, the atmosphere was cosy and bipartisan, untroubled by the need for an actual ‘debate’.

Justin Webb, the new host of the Today Programme, anchored the whole thing with a relaxed bonhomie.  Sitting tanned and suave in a crisp blue shirt, he ferried questions to the two MPs, alongside Philip Collins (not that one) and Andrew Cooper.  The former was a key advisor to Tony Blair, the latter, who’s full title is the Baron Cooper of Windrush, is an exiled Tory who once served as a strategist during David Cameron’s premiership.  The debate began with a precis from Cooper, in the form of a presentation about voting intention and party loyalty since the Brexit referendum.  This slideshow was supposed to frame the discussion itself, particularly the concluding statistic contrasting Brexit opinion with party affiliation; people are more than twice as likely to have a moderate to strong view on Brexit than they are to have a strong affiliation with a political party.  It’s a sobering diagnosis on the current state of affairs, one that is echoed by hundreds of armchair pundits on either side of the political line.  Cooper, however, is a highly experienced pollster who was able to break down precisely how the referendum repositioned that political dividing line.  And so Jess Philips and Rory Stewart, he himself now also a Tory exile, were to follow this presentation with a frank debate on whether Britain’s two party system had finally swung for its last weak majority.

The question was left dangling.  The proposition came laced with a liberal fancy, posed by Justin Webb, of Phillips and Stewart forming their own party.  They were an amiable pair, certainly, but the proposal was only met with a wry laugh from Phillips, who stressed two important points over the course of the debate.  The first was her own loyalty to the Labour Party, which she conceded was often strenuous but maintained by her fundamental belief that a Corbyn-led government is the more favourable alternative to a full term of Boris Johnson.  To embellish on this point, for a moment; although Jess Phillips stated this preference, which should not come as a surprise given that she is a member of the Labour party, there was the suggestion that the ideal outcome of a General Election for her and for the party was one where Labour again failed to claim a majority, leading to Corbyn’s resignation and a more ‘moderate’ leader taking the reins in the form of Keir Starmer, or perhaps Phillips herself.  Philip Collins made this suggestion explicit in one of the more awkward moments of the panel, in which he briefly called out the cynicism of members of a political party temporarily backing their leader in the hope that they achieve a noble loss.  Another slight moment of awkwardness came when Phillips argued that only the most privileged of politicians had the money and apparatus, one could say, to court the risks of pursuing an independent ticket or, as initially proposed, a whole new political party.  This second point of argument from Phillips was offered apologetically, but Stewart responded with little evidence to rebuff her claim.  

Rory Stewart is an Etonian, an Oxford graduate, a former tutor in the employ of the Windsor’s, and the son of a high-ranking diplomat.  He sounds like a slick Ed Miliband, though he has the same propensity for gawky expressions when the camera isn’t pointing in his direction.  One day soon, Eddie Redmayne will play him in a sombre biopic for the BBC.  For now, he is fulfilling the Blair/Cameron promise of the “third way” breed of politician; establishment stock, economically conservative, and apparently socially aware.  He could not deny Phillip’s argument about privilege without seeming out of touch, and so instead he talked about how he makes videos on his phone.  Stewart is also a writer of some renown, and his capable rhetoric distracts from the regressions of his platform.  There was admiring talk of the small party coalition governments of other European nations, but the primary comparison for Stewart was Emmanuel Macron.  It was a comparison touted by Justin Webb that Stewart did not seem displeased with.  The surface comparisons certainly check out; Macron is a centrist dish, also very much the establishment type, who entered an election without belonging to one of France’s major parties.  Unlike Stewart, however, Macron once belonged to the Socialist Party before launching his own centrist project.  It was a gambit that succeeded through Macron becoming everyone’s second favourite candidate.  Andrew Cooper, after the subject of Macron was raised, noted that in Stewart’s new mayoral bid, he may also become everyone’s second favourite candidate, in other words the least compromising alternative.  Again, Stewart did not deny this possibility.  Pursuing the politics of centrism often entails one acting as a magpie for reluctant voters who would rather see no change than bad change.  The discussion of Macron failed to acknowledge the flaws of the centrist platform; appealing to pragmatic voters may be democracy but it isn’t representation, and too often people are demanded to vote for someone simply because they’re not as bad as their opponent.

As to why Stewart is entering the London mayoral race, his reasoning again was blurred in pre-prepared rhetoric.  He spoke of the lost voters in the poorest areas of London, of working-class people in areas like Brixton and Clapton who are statistically the least likely to vote.  Acknowledging this demographic does not equate to mobilizing them, and what he, the Etonian son of a diplomat who currently serves as an MP in Cumbria, can offer these disaffected voters beyond brief recognition is unclear.  Perhaps Stewart was being genuine when he said that he wanted to return to politics on a local level, but he already has a constituency, and preparing to resign that seat for a high-profile mayoral campaign seems to be a cynical contradiction of that belief.  Realistically, Stewart’s likely voters are not found in London’s poorer areas, but in that very tent in Cheltenham where he played as a matinee idol for a different era in British politics.  

I recall Sam Seaborn, in one of the final episodes of The West Wing, confronting Josh Lyman about the challenges faced by a new Democrat government with the phrase; “We are a nation of centrists”.  It’s a line that once felt a confident truth, but now seems naïve and ill-founded.  When Rory Stewart echoed that same sentiment about the UK, or at least his hope that the sentiment is true, it felt dispiriting rather than optimistic.  It is tempting to lump centrism with compromise, yet the two are very separate notions, and a party or an independent candidate must present a core set of values and beliefs beyond compromise.  At the conclusion of the debate, Stewart answered a question about the role of PMQs with another apparently off-the-cuff monologue about the current state of British politics.  It was time, he articulated, for the end of cheap slogans and empty rhetoric, and time for everyone to work together in order to ensure the best for Britain’s future.  Another question was left dangling, this time on what Stewart himself would bring to these discussions.  It is a question that looms over all of British politics, and it is a question that will remain until the rhetoric of “healing divisions” or “working together” subsides for the practical conversation of how Britain is to unite and move forward.  The notion of such things is meaningless without the ballast of policy and ideas. 

And so Stewart left the debate stage, having said a lot about not very much at all.  He played well to the crowd, talking passionately about returning to local politics while gearing up for a high-profile campaign opportunity, calling for the end of soundbites in an easily shareable soundbite, and wistfully projecting the politics of compromise without offering any of his own ideas.  It was the double-speak of the self-aware politician, one who is able to diagnose the frustrations of contemporary politics but still wants to play the game.