The great Roman orator Cicero would be “horrified” by Boris Johnson, according to Rory Stewart. For all that the outgoing prime minister likes to brag about his classical education, “he’s all about the thing the Romans really hated, what they called Levites – frivolity. He downplays everything, makes a joke of everything.”
I spoke to Stewart—soldier-turned-diplomat-turned-politician-turned-podcaster—via video link from his Boston hotel room: he seems to be a frequent traveler to the US. The race to become the next Conservative leader and Prime Minister is on and, with fortuitous timing, Stewart has a new show on BBC Radio 4 that can help us find out. in The long history of the dispute, it examines what has gone wrong in our civil discourse, tracing the debate back to its ancient roots. For Cicero, Jonson’s evasive, populist rhetorical style would have been a red flag about his moral character and fitness for high office.
“There was a correlation between being a good man, being able to argue well, and being able to govern well,” Stewart explained of Rome, pointing out that a refusal to argue in good faith went hand in hand with an inability to govern. “It seems to be [Johnson’s] has put on the mask of a fraud and the hope of his supporters is that when he is in office he can take off that mask. But actually the mask is contaminated by some kind of acid that reaches his mind, his body, his soul and he becomes that mask.
[See also: The post-Johnson era is already a nightmare]
Stewart has experienced this first hand. He was secretary of state for Africa when Johnson was foreign secretary under Theresa May and noted it was “impossible to have a serious conversation” with his boss because “everything has been turned into a caricature”. When May resigned, Stewart entered the Tory leadership race against Johnson, presenting himself as the only candidate willing to be honest about Brexit. His rebel campaign enjoyed an unexpected wave of early success – he finished third in the second Tory MPs’ vote – but was eliminated before reaching the run-off. Stewart has made it clear he will never serve in Johnson’s cabinet and was among Tory MPs expelled from the parliamentary party in September 2019 for trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit. A month later, he announced that he would leave the Conservatives and run as an independent candidate in the London mayoral election (he dropped out when the race was postponed due to Covid-19).
These days, Stewart, now 49, is a fellow at Yale University and hosts the highly successful The rest is politics podcast with New Labor grandee Alistair Campbell (their good-natured spats on the state of British politics often top Apple’s podcast charts). The man who three years ago was fighting to lead the Conservatives has become one of the fiercest critics of his former party and its current leader. In fact, many of his 437,000 Twitter followers (he’s something of a cult figure on the platform) seem confused about his political roots.
“Every now and then, Twitter wakes up,” Stewart told me. “Someone will say, ‘Wait a minute, look at his voting record, this guy’s a conservative!'” And I have to say, “That’s right! I was a conservative. You are looking at the voting record of a Conservative MP. It’s interesting that there is this cognitive dissonance. Today he is not even sure he is still a Tory at all. “People note that I often spend a lot of time sounding like a Liberal Democrat – and they’re probably right.”
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Stewart does seem to have moved to the left since he was freed from the constraints of party politics. He strongly called for a national lockdown in early March 2020 and recently proposed making public transport free to reduce the UK’s dependence on Russian oil. He also addressed proportional representation, arguing that our electoral system no longer works. But it is also true that the Conservative Party has shifted decisively to the right on Brexit and cultural issues since he became – and indeed resigned as – an MP. Strikingly, none of those who rose to leadership this time tried to channel Stewart’s brand of centrist realism. He laughed that “they’ve probably learned their lesson”; although he is extremely polite to his former colleagues, he is also “disappointed” with the state of the debate. “People who I actually think are pretty liberal are pretending to be more conservative. It makes me a little sad because I’m looking for a leader who is willing to take the risk of being honest.” He refused to endorse either candidate and continued: “People are trying to guess what everyone else wants to hear and deciding they can’t say this or that – ‘I can’t say that I’m against sending people to Rwanda, because if I do, I won’t win. And I think it’s all a bit pointless.
This brings us back to Stewart’s belief that the trend towards post-truth politics and the breakdown of our ability to argue constructively has serious implications for the state of our democracy. “If we’re not honest about things, we’re not able to come to rational conclusions, we’re not able to understand what’s really going on,” he warned. While stressing that he did not want to “over-romanticize” the past, he noted that before social media, politicians at least argued with each other in person, face to face in parliament. “Nowadays I feel a lot more like people who perform, not for the people in the hall with them, but to be heard in a clip on TV or on Twitter. When that happens, you’re no longer really engaged as a human being, you’re no longer really trying to convince someone or be convinced in turn.”
Twitter and Facebook have a lot to answer for, with algorithms that “reward you for being pretty angry and punish you for being too subtle. They start training you, almost like you’re in dog training school, you start learning almost subconsciously what will work on Twitter and what won’t.” Persuading online companies to change their algorithms so they don’t automatically promote content that most divisive would be an important start (perhaps something to raise with another former poster boy for liberal centrism: Facebook VP Nick Clegg). Until that happens, his advice to leadership contenders is to avoid being seduced by the prospect of likes and retweets and by the desire to draw attention to making “dangerous promises.”
“What I didn’t understand at the time,” he said, reflecting on his own leadership bid, “and maybe none of these people understand when you’re in the middle of it, is that you think these things matter about whether people support you or not. But people make the decision at a much more basic level.”
Stewart refused to predict the ultimate winner, instead deferring to A new statesmana tool to track MP endorsements as an indication of what we can expect from each potential PM. Regardless of his personal views on the candidates, he was keen to highlight how diverse – in terms of ethnicity, gender and background, if not ideology – the initial group of candidates was, and he thinks it’s interesting how the party has evolved to represent a modern Britain this way as Labor struggles.
“This is probably one of the first leadership campaigns in a very long time where an Old Etonian is not running,” he muses. An Eton graduate himself, he doesn’t mention whether he thinks that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
[See also: Why the Tory contest is missing a Rory Stewart]