This book might look like it’s about politics, but don’t be fooled: this is a story of a love gone wrong.
Let me give you the Hollywood pitch. In his youth, a boy develops a crush. As a young man, he pursues the desire of his fledgling heart by achieving several eye-catching successes. Approaching middle age, and seemingly running out of time, our hero finally declares his hand and consummates this life-long infatuation. And then, in less than a decade, love lies bleeding.
Since early boyhood, the former British cabinet minister Rory Stewart has been romantically inclined to regard the political life as the sine qua non of existence. Taking charge, getting a grip, getting things done, touring the facility, picking up slack, making the world a better place, fulfilling one’s destiny: these were the ideas that sent Young Rory’s heart aflutter.
And the portal to this personalised Narnia was hidden somewhere in the Palace of Westminster.
From his birth in 1973 until he entered parliament in 2010 — as he tells it in his new memoir, Politics on the Edge — Stewart led a privileged, fulfilling and adventurous life.
His father was the British war hero and spy Brian Stewart, who every morning gave him fencing lessons in Hyde Park. He boarded at Eton, then spent a short stint in the Black Watch, his father’s old regiment, before going up to Oxford, where he attended Balliol, said to be that university’s oldest college. Around this time he became a friend to the future King Charles, and a tutor to his two sons.
After a teenaged dalliance with the Labour Party, Stewart returned to the party of his class. Politics for Stewart is about respect for British tradition and history; the importance of grace under pressure; and the majesty of His Majesty.
His book is filled with beautifully written passages about the natural world and the symbolism of architecture that you don’t normally find in books by politicians. “My office had been that of the Secretary of State for India,” he explains at one point. “A Mughal domed ceiling, plastered in gold leaf, soared above my head. The two curved doors were doubled so that two maharajahs could enter simultaneously with no problem of precedence.”
Stewart is no boorish right-winger; he’s an instinctive One Nation Tory — firmly planted on the left of the Conservative Party — and writes without embarrassment about the need for honour in public life.
For all his veneration of the fruits bestowed on Britain by its long-gone imperial past, he is also a modern human, with an appealing self-deprecatory wit. (During a stoush between his faction and the Tory hard right, he comments, “We felt like a book club going to a Millwall game.”)
He’s free of the racism usually associated with his class and nation. He’s supportive of gay marriage; convinced about climate change; genuinely curious about Earth and the people who live on it. He is also admirably suspicious of his own desire for power.
After university Stewart joins the Foreign Office — naturally — and serves in Indonesia in the lead-up to East Timorese independence, and in Montenegro during the Balkans wars.
In 2000 he makes an eccentric but telling career choice: he leaves the FO and spends eighteen months trekking across Iran, Pakistan, the Himalayas and then, just after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan. Walking stick in hand, an Afghan blanket across his shoulders, and relying on the ingrained culture of Afghan hospitality, he lives off the kindness of strangers as he strides through this roadless landscape like a character out of Kipling.
He writes a bestseller about the journey; Brad Pitt buys the film rights. By luck or design, Stewart has acquired an interesting patina of fame — and in a peculiarly British way.
Like his hero T.E. Lawrence, he enjoys travelling to exotic places, where — occasionally — he’s shot at by the locals. In 2003 he is appointed to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, where he runs a province at the ripe old age of thirty. Like many Eton-educated Balliol men before him, he is commanding a dangerous outpost of Empire; but as this is the twenty-first century, it’s the American Empire.
He begins as a supporter of the Iraq war but is soon disillusioned. It is a telling moment. Stewart is too insightful and intelligent, and too wedded to his values, to trim his jib to the prevailing winds. He doesn’t recognise it at the time, but it’s a sign that he might not be best suited to modern politics. Screenwriters would call this an example of foreshadowing.
Stewart is immensely talented, but his talents — for writing, debating, organising and enthusing others — don’t satisfy him. He wants, he says, the power to do good in the world. After a stint setting up and running a charity in Kabul, and then some teaching of human rights at Harvard, he takes the plunge.
In 2010 he gains preselection for the rural seat of Penrith and the Borders, located far away from London in chilly Cumbria. Typically, one of his first acts is to set out on foot and visit every village in the electorate. But the tougher footslog awaits him in London: it is the beginning of the end of the affair.
Stewart must have committed some terrible crime in a previous life: as a junior minister, his first three bosses are Liz Truss, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson.
Truss — who will later become the shortest-serving prime minister in British history — is like the Queen of Hearts made incarnate: capable of thinking up six impossible policies before breakfast. And then not caring if anything happens, so long as a press release is generated.
Stewart attends a meeting with Truss after rushing to the bedside of his gravely ill father. She asks how his weekend was. “I explained that my father had died,” he writes. “She paused for a moment, nodded, and asked when the twenty-five-year environment plan would be ready.”
After a reshuffle he falls into the orbit of Priti Patel, who’s been made Secretary of State for International Development, a department she had frequently called to be abolished. When Stewart — who genuinely believes in giving aid to poor nations — tries to engage her about policy, Patel, who has a habit of enunciating every syllable of key words, tells him: “Look Rory, I want you to roll the pitch. Okay? In the end this is about ac-count-a-bi-li-ty.”
Stewart’s time working under Boris Johnson during the future PM’s short and unlamented tenure as foreign secretary is equally instructive. He finds Johnson, ruddy of cheek and untidy of hair, in his magnificent office, his “air of roguish solidity, however… undermined by the furtive cunning of his eyes, which made it seem as though an alien creature had possessed his reassuring body and was squinting out of the sockets.”
Stewart is an expert on the Middle East, so Johnson naturally wants him to become the minister in charge of Britain’s Africa policy. “You’ll love it Rory,” Johnson assures him. “A Balliol man in Africa.”
Stewart had the misfortune to arrive in British politics at a time and place when the performative side of the job was viewed as the only necessity for political success. Like right-wing populists everywhere, Truss, Patel and Johnson loved the spotlight but couldn’t be bothered actually running the show.
And then there’s Brexit. Stewart was a Remainer, and after the disastrous referendum vote he becomes an advocate for a soft Brexit.
The final scenes of a film are the most important. As Sam Goldwyn probably never said, “Start with an earthquake, then build up to a climax.”
The last chapters of Politics on the Edge tell the story of Stewart’s quixotic bid in 2019 to become leader of the Conservative Party and — in his view — save it from itself. Like an episode of Survivor, prospective PMs, including Stewart, fall by the wayside in a series of votes until only Boris the Hutt remains.
Brexit has finally delivered its apotheosis: a man without a moral compass has been chosen to set a new course for Britain.
Meanwhile, somewhere in China, a virus is born. Its hour come at last, Covid-19 slouches towards the old and the weak. Prime Minister Johnson responds with all the alacrity of a distracted sloth.
Soon after losing the leadership ballot, Stewart resigns from the cabinet, the government and the Tory Party and retires hurt from political life. He returns to his family home in Scotland and learns to breathe again by becoming a flaneur of nature.
“One morning” as Stewart is out walking “a roe deer, leaping from the lower field, lands next to me. Startled eyes meet startled eyes.” And then with a bound, “the veins straining against the tight surface of his frightened body,” the deer heads for freedom. •