‘An excoriating picture of a shamefully dysfunctional political culture’,Rowan Williams
‘Enthralling, appalling’Tom Stoppard.
‘One of the most devastating insider accounts of Westminster I have ever read’Marina Hyde
Stewart begins his new book by saying,
“Our government and Parliament, which once had a reasonable claim to be the best in the world, is now in a shameful state.”
Rory Stewart left politics after being excluded from the Conservative Party in autumn 2019, along with 22 other Tory MPs, because he would not agree to support the Johnson government’s policy of a no-deal or a hard Brexit. He says:
“I left politics with a deep love for my constituency, respect and admiration for the intelligence, competence, imagination, and courage of many of my colleagues, and enduring friendships. But my final sense is one of shame. And my regret is often not about my openness but about not being able to be more forceful in my condemnation”.
The first part of the book documents Stewart’s efforts to find a constituency for the 2010 general election. After varied and extensive experience abroad, in the army, civil administration and working for charities in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, he was looking for an opportunity for public service at home. UK politics was his chosen vehicle.
But he found the process of being selected for the candidate list, and then for a constituency shortlist, completely crazy. He writes:
“No one felt that the Party values them for their personality, their intelligence, or their experience. Nor for their ability to make a speech, to analyse policy, or to lead a country. Instead they were prized for their ability to protect leaflets from the rain; enter a locked apartment block using the caretaker’s code; partner with eighty-year-old male members, and understand their need for lavatory breaks; and protect their fingertips from the sprung letter box and the teeth of a silent dog…..The curious personalities that emerged in Parliament at the end of this process were the product of a Darwinian process of Party selection and rejection. The particular compound of canniness and ignorance, fluency, misdirected loyalty and awkward dishonesties which made the modern MP, had evolved to survive the demands of the dominant Party members….”
He learned from a friend that David Cameron had said at one party meeting: “Rory Stewart is exactly the kind of person we don’t want in Parliament”.
Finally Stewart found himself one of 300 applicants for the candidacy at Penrith and the Borders, where the sitting MP, David Maclean, had resigned after a headline in the Evening Standard, “One wife, two mistresses….and a quad bike on Commons expenses”.
As he walked to the final selection meeting a local councillor caught his arm:
“Let me tell you who we are looking for. We want a local man. We want a married, family man. We want someone who understands this area. Preferably we want a farmer. And we want a good Conservative. I’m not sure you fit the bill, do you?”
Stewart was chosen as the candidate that night. He put this down to some lucky loopholes in the system that worked to his advantage. Over the following years, almost all these loopholes were sealed up, guaranteeing that an increasing number of MPs were Party professionals with long years of campaigning and service as local councillors.
The Backbench MP
On entering Parliament as a new MP, Stewart joined a meeting with the other newbies and the Chief Whip. His views regarding this encounter were an early sign of the disillusion which would follow. The Chief Whip said:
“We should not regard debates as opportunities for open discussion; we might be called legislators but we were not intended to overly scrutinise legislation; we might be members of independent committees but we were expected to be loyal to the party; votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgement; to vote too often on your conscience would be foolish and ensure you were never promoted to become a minister; politics was a team sport; “I always try to get consensus as chief whip, and the consensus is that the prime minister is right”.
Stewart was invited to a meeting of Conservative MPs addressed by Cameron, Prime Minister, and George Osborne, Chancellor. Osborne said:
“We will cut the budgets of unprotected departments by 25%. Such cuts would be beneficial to the economy, and would reward the hard-working…. We need to let people know that we understand how unfair it is to wake in a housing estate, to go to work, and see neighbours’ blinds still down all morning while those on benefits are sleeping in”.
Stewart writes that “none of us were going to be consulted on any of this”. Walking out of the meeting with Stewart, Ken Clarke said,
“These parliamentary meetings are bizarre. No discussion, and very few ideas, and it’s as bad in Cameron’s cabinet. Cabinet under Thatcher and Major would take up a whole morning each week…..enjoyable, lively, open-ended and effective conversation. Now it is dominated by the polling people talking about the state of public opinion……It is a disastrous way to run a government, it’s all a reaction to the hysterical 24/7 chatter”.
Almost every weekend, Stewart travelled back to Penrith by train, to whatever constituency events and meetings his agent there had arranged for him.
In the House of Commons, Stewart applied to join the Foreign Affairs Committee. Guido Fawkes was not impressed:
“Word reaches Guido that a certain new MP is ruffling a few old-guard feathers with his arrogance and brutal determination to climb the ladder….is lobbying his colleagues hard…..though he failed to mention the time he spent as a Labour Party member…”
As a member of this Committee, Stewart went with the Chair on a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, where they met President Karzai. At the meeting, Karzai embraced and kissed Stewart, whom he knew, and said:
“As Rory knows, the entire Western counter-insurgency strategy is a mistake. If I lived in Southern Afghanistan, I would join the Taliban. All your military operations are just making things worse”.
On the way out, the ambassador said “Well, that was a good meeting”, and the Chair asked about the guest list for dinner.
Back in London, the summary and conclusions from the visit were written by Stewart and approved by the Chair, making very serious accusations that the aims of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) were not being met. Stewart was pleased with the report, regarding it as stronger than anything from any other NATO parliament or the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But to his dismay, there was no response. The House of Commons seemed indifferent, and the Labour opposition continued to back the Conservative government. In Stewart’s view, the government was perpetuating the myths of a failing war.
When a new Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, was appointed, Stewart went to see him, and offered his view that the counter-insurgency operation would fail, and that too much emphasis was being placed on the Helmand operations. Hammond rejected this, and repeated the government line that it was being successful.
More disillusion for Stewart, whose expert knowledge, contacts and experience of Afghanistan were being rejected at every turn:
“By 2014, I had been a government backbencher for four years…..which had left me contemptuous of what I saw as the superficiality of the leadership. I had been appalled at the apparent pettiness, insecurity and envy of so many older MPs, the heavy obsequiousness to Cameron in the tea room….I felt that MPs used Prime Minister’s Questions to land little stories in their local papers, and exploited media appearances to repeat party slogans….I hated how politicians used the pompous grandeur of the Palace of Westminster to pretend to a power they did not have, and to take credit for things they had not done. I felt all this was at the heart of our failure of responsibility in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the grotesque inadequacy of our domestic policies”.
Stewart managed to get himself elected as Chair of the Defence Committee, previously unheard of for someone so relatively young and recently elected to Parliament, in the face of many sneering remarks from colleagues. Under his chairmanship, reports were produced on a variety of important subjects, such as Syria, Russian attacks in the Balkans, conventional warfare, and defence intelligence expenditure, but:
“In truth, our reports were largely ignored, and the departmental replies remained a tissue of evasions and propaganda”.
Continued in Part Two.
Politics On the Edge – A Memoir From Within, by Rory Stewart. Penguin 2023. Details here.
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