Book review: 400-odd pages of how right Rory Stewart was at the time, and how history will prove him to be a visionary

This autobiographical amble through Rory Stewart’s political career highlights much of the former Conservative minister’s unmet potential
The narrative thread Rory Stewart weaves majors on his view of himself as a benign demi-god. Photo: Andrew Findlay/Alamy Stock Photo

By Russell Barnes

21 Feb 2024

Whilst all political memoirs agree on being commute-challengingly massive, beyond that they tend to fall into two distinct genres: overly technocratic plods through the writer’s parliamentary hobby horse or lengthy exercises in axe-grinding and point scoring now the writer has faded onto the back benches and beyond.

Rory Stewart manages to combine both while reflecting on a political career in the Conservative Party that came to an end following his resignation after the 2019 leadership campaign.

Like all memoirs, the secret is to work out what is true and what is not being said in order to flatter the writer’s own ego and salve any stings of failures. So, what do we get here?

Beginning at the end with the second televised leadership debate – in which it’s fair to say Stewart tanked – Politics on the Edge offers 400-odd pages of how right he was at the time, and how much history will prove him to be a visionary.

It’s a shame because hidden behind the self-mythologising is the more interesting story of how good Stewart was as a constituency MP and how effective his practical, hands-on approach to ministerial briefs was in generating good policy changes, like the 5p plastic bag charge.

“Rory Stewart turns out to be a broadly effective minister” probably isn’t the epitaph he’s looking for, so instead the narrative thread he weaves majors on his view of himself as a benign demi-god, alighting on departments and bringing great change wherever he goes.

Stewart comes across as incredibly likeable, personable, bursting with ideas and driven by a strong sense of purpose. This is very much a book of many Rorys, starting with the political ingenue fired up by his time in Afghanistan, heeding a political call.

People warm to his down-to-earth willingness to get involved with his vast rural constituency. His love of the countryside and the people who populate the far northwest shines through and once elected, he morphs into an archetypal local MP fighting against fire station and cinema closures, and pushing for better broadband and for more local investment. He does a lot of walking.

"Despite his best efforts to be right on every subject under the sun, Stewart comes across as warm and engaging"

Following the 2015 general election, we meet “ministerial Rory” when he is appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The 2015 Christmas floods combines both “minister” and “man of action” in a blaze of publicity as he bestrode the sodden county like a saint in high-vis, bringing succour to the good folk of Cumbria for the news cameras.

David Cameron’s defeat in the 2016 European referendum and Theresa May’s accession sees Stewart’s ministerial career blossom. He has stints in the now-closed Department for International Development and the Foreign Office and a role as prisons and probation minister at the Ministry of Justice before finally becoming secretary of state back at DfID. With this context in mind, it’s understandable why May gets a fairly positive portrayal compared to Cameron (who he had no relationship with) and Johnson (who he probably had more of a relationship with than he’d have liked, and who he clearly loathes).

In each role, he either gets beneath the brief because he’s an expert or he gets experts in to challenge his civil servants. His return to DfID as secretary of state is particularly eye-opening, laying bare how previous relationships are skewed as the power dynamic shifts. While being a champion of the civil service, Stewart is very clear on our need to be more flexible than we’d perhaps like to be – not necessarily cleaving to the party line but aiming to be more dynamic and innovative, and to search for more radical solutions that are free of political view, particularly in the aid space.

The leadership campaign and the death of “Rorymania” (if it ever existed) tops and tails the book, with a sense of lost opportunities and the end of his career in frontline politics.

Despite his best efforts to be right on every subject under the sun, Stewart comes across as warm and engaging. Listeners to his podcast with Alistair Campbell will be well aware of his chatty style with regular detours down conversational byways and wanders around the subject at hand. That charisma translates into an eminently readable canter through a career that probably promised more than he could deliver.  

Russell Barnes is head of probation communications at HM Prison and Probation Service. He has worked in digital and communications roles across government, most recently at the Legal Aid Agency, Defra and Cabinet Office

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