Rory Stewart: The ‘radical’ centrist fighting to become UK prime minister

The breakout star is focused on harnessing the UK’s skills despite Brexit divisions

epa07623339 Britain's International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart (R) addresses a crowd gathered at Speaker's corner in Hyde Park in central London, Britain 03 June 2019. Media reports state that Rory Stewart, a contestant in the Conservative Party leadership contest to replace Theresa May as British Prime Minister, is a dark-horse candidate that has hijacked the contest with a surprising social media campaign.  EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
Powered by automated translation

Some 15 years ago Rory Stewart, who is running to be UK prime minister, found himself brokering a ceasefire between two rival militias Maysan province, southern Iraq.

While Britain is not physically at war, he believes his diplomatic experience leaves him readily equipped to mediate between the various factions in the ruling Conservative Party and UK parliament.

“The basic story in this is that we are in danger of becoming very polarised, in danger of becoming a very divided country,” adds the 46-year-old, currently serving as international development minister.

Mr Stewart, who was a senior coalition official after the invasion of Iraq, has become the breakout star in the race to become the new Conservative leader and, as a result, prime minister.

Travelling the country far and wide, he has urged the public to challenge and confront him. Far from hiding behind closed doors and reading from prepared scripts, Mr Stewart wants to have this discussion with voters.

His online videos have been a sensation and his social media presence has surged. At a time when British politics is lurching ever more to extremes amid the Brexit impasse, the leadership dark horse is portraying himself as the rational, moderate and humble figure who can bring together the countries warring factions and unify the Conservatives.

“It is much easier, or can feel much easier, making the arguments on the fringes,” he told a packed-out central London room, a stone's throw from Trafalgar Square, on Wednesday evening.

Mr Stewart’s recent travels have seen him venture to the border on the island of Ireland, a contentious issue in the Brexit debate, and meet with farmers in northern England.

Despite all of his enthusiasm and energy – he walked across parts of Afghanistan solo in 2002 – the former diplomat remains very much an outsider in the race to become leader.

He has advocated for a soft departure from the European Union and backed the Brexit plan of outgoing prime minister Theresa May, which has been rejected three times by parliament.

Mr Stewart believes a so-called hard withdrawal would be “incredibly damaging” and leave years of uncertainty.

This outlook is unlikely to resonate with the pro-Brexit and 124,000 Conservative Party members who will select the new prime minister. The current favourite, former foreign minister and Brexiteer Boris Johnson, has said the UK will leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal.

US President Donald Trump has offered his support for Mr Johnson and spoke with contenders Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister, and Michael Gove, the environment minister, earlier this week – but not with Mr Stewart.

“The whole reason I’m in this race is to try to say it doesn’t need to be like that, that actually you can be radical in the centre ground, you can make this country a much better place from a centre ground of British politics than you can from the extremes,” Mr Stewart said.

He believes he has a way forward built on moderation, consensus, and “harnessing” the population regardless of their voting intentions. The “Godzilla in the room” - Brexit - must not seesaw from remaining in the EU to a no-deal withdrawal or the country will suffer from decades of shockwaves, Mr Stewart says.

He fears the constant lurching from one “revolutionary” extreme to another and failing to build a consensus will mean nothing will be done.

“The common ground for me is about taking the energy of different sides and combining it. Its not about wiping out all the energy of these sides, it’s about harnessing it.”

But far from the often emotional, single-policy issue that many argue UK politics is currently revolving around, Mr Stewart has begun to layout his other ideas.

He has already said there should be a government-funded mid-career break where people are given a year to learn new skills in a rapidly changing world. The father-of-two has also talked extensively about his desire to change adult social care, especially in an ageing society.

If his approach will court favour with Conservative members remains to be seen.