Rory Stewart is an unconventional man running an unconventional campaign. The British lawmaker, a former soldier, diplomat and author, is running to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister.
In a leadership contest where the initial voters are his parliamentary colleagues, the current Secretary of State for International Development has been taking his case directly to the public, walking around the country and making videos and tweeting his whereabouts in a way that calls to mind former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke.
Stewart, 46, was already a legendary walker, having chronicled long hikes in books such as The Places In Between. In 2007, he built on his experience as a regional administrator in Afghanistan to write a cover story for TIME on the country’s future.
His unconventional campaign has raised his profile further but he concedes it is unlikely to win him an election decided not by the general public but by the parliamentary party and members. “In terms of the public, I’m winning this race,” he tells TIME. “In terms of my colleagues, I’m losing it.”
TIME editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World sat down with Stewart at his home in London, at a dining table strewn with his four-year-old son’s Legos, to talk about the race and this moment in British politics.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Giridharadas: You seem to be trying to bring a new political style to Britain. Can you describe it?
Stewart: What I’ve been doing on Twitter is saying, “I’m going to be in McDonald’s in Barking in half an hour. Come see me there.” And then, 45 minutes later, I’ve walked down the street. I’m now in Costa Coffee. And you can come see me there. And people started following me across London to find me.
I think the other thing is, trusting that I can communicate quite complex messages repeatedly through the day, with seven, eight pieces to camera on different issues of policy. And not patronizing my audience. Making sure that, yes, they are often only a minute-and-a-half long, but they’re trying to announce quite serious policies or engage in quite deep issues.
It sometimes seems that demagogues have understood the modern media environment better than other politicians. Do you think there’s something to steal from the populists in terms of style and connection?
Absolutely. I’m the sort of Trumpian anti-Trump. My little thing on no-deal Brexit got 2 million views, which is more than he was getting on some of his tweets. But the message I’m putting out is really complicated. It’s a four-minute-twenty-five-second dissection of the problems for no-deal Brexit.
People have raised the question of whether you are genuinely a conservative. What most makes you a conservative?
It’s that I’m not too embarrassed by words like “discipline” or “purpose.” Or the idea of national citizen service. It’s that I am very proud of the monarchy, of our national history, of the military. I’m deeply suspicious of ideologies, abstractions, of bland government platitudes, and really my whole politics is about trying to solve problems rather than describe them. And I find lots of the progressive left engaged in conversations that seem to me to not be very helpful in making the world a better place.
What does it mean to be that person in the age of Trump, Brexit, Farage? In this leadership race are you trying to be the last Conservative who is actually a Conservative?
It’s a very interesting question. I mean, if you factor for awareness, I’m now leading the rest. I’m ahead of Boris Johnson. A poll that came out on Sunday showed I’m leading on 22 out of the 24 characteristics people want in a leader. So in terms of the public, I’m winning this race.
In terms of my colleagues, I’m losing it. I’m going to be lucky to even make it through to the second round and get enough MPs supporting me, and the reason why is that they are all saying to me, ‘I agree absolutely with your politics. I’m much closer to your politics than I am to Boris’s. But I’ve concluded in the modern world that your style of trying to reason with people, analyze what’s wrong is never going to work.’
That’s really strange for me, to have so many people saying that. To get them to really commit to me, they would have to be feeling quite confident and idealistic. And no one is feeling confident and idealistic. They feel the party is indelibly split, and the country is split, that we can never win another election, that the end of the world is nigh.
And that isn’t a good place to be if you’re trying to say to people, come on, of course we can win this! We don’t have to be like that. We can be pretty straightforward and we don’t have to describe a country that doesn’t exist. We can describe the country we are and talk practicably about how we make it better. And we can win these arguments!
One of the things I hear from people whenever I come to the U.K. is a general dissatisfaction with the political class. And two issues come up a lot: many Members of Parliament not really being part of the communities where their constituencies are, and of course the whole Eton-Oxford thing. And, in a way, you’re part of both of those issues.
You’re not from where you represent, and you’re from that Eton-Oxford group, but you’re trying to do something different. Do you think that British politics is rigged in favor of this class of people? How do you defend the hold of a relatively small group of people on public life?
I don’t think you’d want to defend that. But, equally, I don’t think that’s the fundamental problem. I think at the moment what people want is somebody they can trust, somebody they can believe in, somebody they think can fix things. They’re not that concerned about where you went to school.
But you don’t think you get into a political crisis like this because too many people in power are too removed from what everyday people are going through?
Well, British politics is much less elitist, much less class-based, than it was 50 years ago. And it’s become much more extreme and polarized. So I don’t think the hypothesis holds through.
I mean, this country was once governed by 650 land-owning aristocrats who were all related to each other, which isn’t the case now. If you look in Parliament, there are an enormous number of people who are non-graduates, certainly didn’t go to private schools; they come from all sorts of different backgrounds. That’s changed. Even the last 15 years, much more diverse. And yet the country is far more polarized and extreme than it was.
This was a much more moderate, balanced country in the 19th century, partly because all these things that we hate and are rightly suspicious of gave us a type of resilience and moderation. Gave people confidence to believe that they could argue their way through, probably because the other people they’d been dealing with were people they’d known all their lives.
A debate has emerged about whether Britain should pay reparations for colonialism. What do you think?
No. I mean we have really, really, really, really bad problems in this country, and bad problems in the world. I’m the Secretary of State for international development. I’m very proud that our country spends 0.7% of our gross national income on international development. But I want to target that money on the poorest people in the world. Not somehow spend the 14 billion pounds that I have a year in some weird belief that we’re going to somehow undo 300, 400 years of colonial history by writing checks to people.
Do you think there’s any way to atone for any of that which would be right to do?
I think atoning for the sins of your ancestors is a bit weird. As time goes on, that gets a bit weirder. Because generations change. One of the odd things is that rage against the British Empire is now coming from people who never experienced the British Empire, have only read about it. And it’s quite a satisfying, easy thing for people to get angry about because it stops your being able to concentrate on the very difficult, practical problems in making this place, this world, better.
But you don’t think the poverty of those countries is in a large way related to the history of empire?
I think it’s a factor, but I think there are many, many countries that are very poor that were never part of empires. And the United States, which was not an imperial power in the same sense that Britain was, plays as big if not bigger a part in the global economic system that contributes to the situation in developing countries as we do.
Afghanistan and Iraq were both places you worked. There, people talk about politics as being tribal. Is there anything you’ve learned from working in those places that has helped you understand what is happening to a tribalizing politics in the West?
Yeah, I think it really prepared me for identity politics, where people are deeply, deeply imbued in the sense of their own rightness. And what’s happened with Brexit and anti-Brexit is it’s become much more than a set of values or propositions about trade. It’s defining their identity, how they think, who they think they are and how they see the world.
So that is, in a sense, something that I had to live again and again, whether it’s dealing with 2,000 Shia protestors outside my office in Amara, and what happens when I step out into that crowd and they’re all saying, “You’re an imperialist, Zionist aggressor.” And I’m saying, “Actually, I’m Rory. That’s my name and can we please have a conversation? What is it you really want to talk about here? Because if the problem is the water supply, I can explain why the water supply isn’t running but it will be in a few weeks’ time.”
So I really believe that people are rational and sane. But also that people don’t want to get off their high horses and talk about practical stuff. They don’t really want to change the world. They want to run to identity.
Immigration dominates the politics here and in the U.S. In both, you have some outright racists. You have some people who love immigration. And you have a lot of people in the middle who are not racists outright but who want their town to stay 80% white because that’s what it’s always been. What do we do with those people? Do you tell those people the truth, that that world is gone? Or is there something legitimate in that desire?
I think there is definitely something perfectly understandable about being deeply committed to your place, to its identity, to the way it was. To the way it was when your parents or grandparents were alive, and wanting to keep a sense of your community and your place.
I think that when things are managed well, you can preserve that. We’re going through a huge transition. London has been very successful in this. In Lewisham Market [in southeast London], I was talking to a guy who was absolutely the most traditional kind of London man, a third-generation fruit seller in the Lewisham Market. His grandfather had that fruit stall, in the 1920s. Right next to him were some fish sellers from Kunar, Afghanistan.
He didn’t seem troubled in any way at all about the way that market was changing or things were changing. He had an incredible sense of his continuity, his place, his identity as a market seller alongside other people with whom he seemed to be very relaxed.
It’s to do with the way in which these things are done and managed. Not pretending it isn’t a huge change and a transition in people’s lives, and making sure that you do it tactfully and you do it with empathy. And you help people see the reality of the way the world is. See that this is what is pretty good about the modern world.
If you succeed and become Prime Minister, Donald Trump will be your most important relationship. You’ve anchored this campaign in honesty and candor. Do you think he’s an honest person you could deal with?
So the type of candor I’ve anchored the campaign in is the responsible candor of somebody who’s standing to be Prime Minister, and therefore the candor I would have with or about Donald Trump would be delivered respectfully and in private.
I was a British diplomat since I was 22. I’ve met President Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, Suharto in Indonesia. I don’t think the way that you proceed, if you’re standing to be prime minister of a country, is go around insulting other people’s leaders.
Do you think he’s someone you could have an honest relationship with?
I don’t think that diplomatic relationships are honest in the way that normal human relationships are honest.
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