Rory Stewart’s Lofty Aims

The prime-ministerial hopeful turned London mayoral candidate told The Atlantic that he hopes to build a moderate political movement from the bottom up. But can it be done from city hall?

A close-up photo of Rory Stewart.
Rory Stewart talks to media in Westminster. (Henry Nicholls / Reuters)

The exodus of more than 70 MPs (and counting) is not just a simple case of political turnover. Many of the lawmakers who have opted to sit out this election are considered to be the more moderate members of the House of Commons, particularly when it comes to their positions on Brexit. Though they have all cited their own reasons for stepping down—from family obligations to the “nastiness” of the current political discourse—the underlying cause is clear: Parliament, much like the rest of the country, remains bitterly divided over Britain’s bid to leave the European Union, and the center ground is dwindling between those who wish to see Brexit happen by any means necessary and those who want to stop it altogether.

Rory Stewart believes he can change that. Last month, the erstwhile Conservative lawmaker and prime-ministerial hopeful announced his independent bid to be the next mayor of London so that he can challenge the “extremism” that has taken over British politics.

It’s not an area Stewart is unfamiliar with. After all, he has spent most of his life in the service of the British government: first as a diplomat (and allegedly a spy), then as a deputy governor in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, followed by nearly a decade in the House of Commons. But after failing to secure the Conservative Party leadership in June, Stewart now believes that the best place to address the problems plaguing Westminster isn’t from within, but outside it.

It’s a tall order for any mayoral candidate—not least because the role doesn’t actually afford too many powers. Still, Stewart, who ranks third behind the Labour incumbent and Conservative candidate in a recent poll, remains undeterred. In an interview with The Atlantic at a policy conference in London, he shared his thoughts on how he hopes to change politics at the local level, and the potential for a new centrist movement in Britain. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yasmeen Serhan: You’ve spoken a lot about the hollowing of the center ground in British politics. What do you think is behind it?

Rory Stewart: My theory for why the center ground has collapsed is that people have completely failed to make the business of government interesting … Populist extremes generally have very little to do with governing. It’s to do with radical and often extremely unrealistic fairy stories about your country and its future. But people are attracted to that because the actual business of making a better society [and] real change hasn’t been communicated. Nobody has managed to engage an audience with it, so people revert to fairy stories.

And this goes all the way back to our childhood. When you’re in school and you’re taught about politics, what happens is your teacher puts up an image of Martin Luther King [Jr.] or [Mahatma] Gandhi or [Nelson] Mandela and makes you think that politics is about these kind of grand revolutionary changes. Now, in certain countries at certain moments, if you’re lucky enough to be one of those people, it could be [about] that. But that isn’t generally the business of democratic politics in the developed world. They don’t put up images of George Bush Sr. talking through some transitions in his education policy. That’s just not how people think.

Serhan: In the video announcing your mayoral bid, you talked about the “extremism” that you feel has taken over this country’s politics. How can you tackle this issue from city hall?

Stewart: I want to change the way our democracy works. At the moment, the British system is that you get a vote [for mayor] every four years, and then you have to shut up until four years later. It essentially subcontracts your brain to this person—the mayor—and then four years later you get another say. This is ridiculous. Why would you want to subcontract your brain to me? Aren’t you going to participate with me in governing this city? So I want to steal from Ireland and use these models of citizens’ assemblies to try to actually provide ... an active, engaged citizenship ... I want to move away from the will of the people expressed once every four years toward something more like a jury: a randomly selected group of citizens who speak for the citizens.

Serhan: Sort of like keeping a pulse on the views of the electorate?

Stewart: Yes, but not a snapshot poll—a deliberate exercise where that jury sits for a number of days chewing through an issue, working toward a compromise, working toward consensus.

I mean, the way that abortion was eventually solved in Ireland was not through a referendum saying yes or no, not through a citizens’ assembly asked yes or no, but through citizens’ assemblies spending days going through survivors’ testimony, medical evidence, working together, listening to the same evidence. And at the end of that, something very interesting emerges—not yes or no, but how many weeks? What happens if somebody’s raped? How about mental-health issues? That’s what you need citizens to do, that’s what citizens are never encouraged to do.

Serhan: What sort of issues would you envisage utilizing citizens’ assemblies?

Stewart: I would expect to have certainly something on climate change immediately. That’s very, very important, particularly with [the climate-change protest movement] Extinction Rebellion. Certainly something on transport. I’d like to get them involved much more on the questions around knife crime and our solutions to that.

Serhan: How does this apply to big issues like Brexit? You’re running to be the mayor of a city that voted overwhelmingly against leaving the EU, and you’re competing against candidates who support the government’s deal, a second referendum, and stopping Brexit outright. Where do you see yourself on that spectrum?

Stewart: One of the paradoxes is that I’ve left parliamentary politics and the cabinet to get much more involved in local politics. The other candidates are talking as though they want to be prime minister, not the mayor of London. They’re trying to talk about everything: They’re trying to talk about Donald Trump, they’re trying to talk about Brexit, they’re trying to talk about issues that have nothing to do with running a city. That’s part of my whole problem with modern politics.

Serhan: These are the issues du jour.

Stewart: Look, I have a lot of sympathy: I voted Remain ... but I’m afraid that’s a little bit like my poster of Nelson Mandela. It’s a little bit about moving the conversation off how you run a good city onto virtue signaling, gestural politics, about feeling good about yourself.

The fact is, the referendum happened, people voted to leave, and there’s going to be a general election in several weeks’ time which is going to determine whether or not we’re leaving the European Union. It frankly doesn’t matter what a particular city in this country, even a great city, thinks about that … We can’t be as smug as [to say], “Oh, I’m part of diverse London. I have nothing to do with Britain.” This is where the Supreme Court is, this is where the Houses of Parliament is, this is where the government is, this is where the prime minister is. A lot of the problems in this country are to do with divisive politics and a sense in northern England that there are these kind of snooty people in London who don’t want anything to do with them. So I have to ... make it a capital as well as a great city.

Serhan: Several of your former colleagues—many of whom, like yourself, were kicked out of the Conservative Party for opposing a no-deal Brexit—announced that they won’t be standing at the next election. Are you concerned about the void they’ll be leaving behind?

Stewart: I’m deeply worried. On the one hand, I’m proud that when Boris began to take the Conservative Party to the right and began to push for a no-deal Brexit, we stood up and rebelled. I wish more Republicans did that against President Trump. But, of course, we paid a price because in the British system, unlike the American system, you literally lose your job … Now, we achieved something by rebelling. We blocked a no-deal Brexit. We forced [Johnson], I feel, to go out and get a Brexit deal when I think [Johnson’s senior political adviser] Dominic Cummings would have preferred a no-deal Brexit. So there was something achieved by that. But there was also a risk, which is [in] the Labour Party going to the left, the Conservative Party going to the right—there’s a huge, gaping hole.

Serhan: Who fills that void?

Stewart: If I’m successful in building a new type of politics, then I’d want that to maybe form a model—potentially in the way [French President Emmanuel] Macron did with En Marche in France—for how you can think about center-ground politics.

Serhan: If your mayoral bid is successful, are you prepared to continue current London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Twitter feud with President Trump?

Stewart: I wish [Trump] would start a Twitter feud with me! Nothing would guarantee my election more.