We need a hero. The world is collapsing around us, the very fibre of our society is under threat. Truths have become lies, lies have become truths, and the political conversation has been dragged to extremities, with policy increasingly dictated by fringe voices on social media. The centre will not hold.
Up step The Rest Is Politics. A pair of high-profile figures “disagreeing agreeably” on the state of British politics. With the soft-spoken, former Eton schoolboy and Tory minister Rory Stewart, and the brash, northern, Burnley-Football-Club-loving former Labour spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, here are two men from two Britains showing they could get along. Except, of course, they’re from the same Britain. Both are well-known political figures with vast experience in Westminster and both, it seems fair to say, fall into the middle third of the political spectrum. So does most of Britain. This is why The Rest Is Politics works. It is why Rory Stewart is, for many millions, the hero we need and the “best prime minister we never had”.
Both Stewart, Campbell and the bulk of the audience represent the precise, nebulous characters known as the ‘establishment’. The swamp. The intelligentsia. The uppity-London lot who think they understand the issues of the people in towns left behind post-industrialisation, but who were, in fact, instrumental in causing the successful populist votes they now so fiercely lament. Anyone who has come across the outspoken Matt Goodwin on Twitter will know that vast swathes of the country are supposedly members of this “new elite” (it’s effectively anyone with a university degree who supports Labour and dislikes Brexit) and, sticking to sweeping generalisations, Stewart and Campbell are this lot’s (frankly our) Messiahs.
The challenge faced by arrogant, centrist-left, urban dwellers is how do you combat the idea that you’re a twat and try to win elections again? Do you dismiss the idea of a “new elite” out of hand, label it as populist-driven scaremongering designed to whip people into a frenzy and vote for radical change, or do you give credence to the widely held belief that there are millions of educated city elites who often do look down on rural, right-wing voters? Both sides, unfortunately, have a bit of a point.
Until now, Rory Stewart has erred on the side of latter. He has been reverential, stoic, almost a caricature of old Britain – a relic of Empire and espionage with a defined sense of destiny and an impressive command of the mother tongue (though he no doubt dabbles in a dozen other languages too) – while simultaneously being the goofiest, most awkward, most self-deprecating of any prominent politician in recent times. It worked for him as a podcaster and a writer, but it didn’t as a politician, and it certainly didn’t lead to him creating the Britain he hoped for. The opposite happened.
Which is why now he’s changing tack. He’s more abrasive, taking aim at Westminster and himself. He describes, time and time again, his decade in politics as a failure. He is relentlessly self-critical. He is forthright about the “scale of the mess” and attacks the system he has long admired and indeed bought into. He favours wholesale reform on topics from MP selection to proportional representation in voting to stripping the influence of the two major parties. On leaders, with Cameron he is critical and with Truss comical; with Boris Johnson, he reserves a special hatred, scathing on every aspect of the man he holds most responsible for the degradation and self-interest now central to the Conservative party and British politics as a whole. It marks an escalation from a figure who has been typically mild-mannered.
— Rory Stewart (@RoryStewartUK) September 4, 2023
At a live show, this rhetoric is exactly what the crowd want to hear. They could be serenaded for hours with Stewart’s greatest anti-Bojo hits. As Tom Holland acknowledges, we are in the “heart of remainer, liberal, brexit-hating Britain”. The audience is white and middle class, between 25 and 55, some centrist dads with left-wing children, but plenty of centrist children with right-wing dads as well. Men who really support the Tory party of Cameron (and, once upon a time, Stewart) but will vote for the Labour party of Starmer. Everyone’s well-groomed (though feigning slight dishevelment in the shape of a two week beard or messy bun or turtle shell glasses serving as hair rather than eye pieces) and well-dressed: the men wear light chinos and collarless shirts, the women wear sundresses. There’s lots of talk about imminent “debriefs” post-toilet during the interval, and indeed as we make our way back out into the hot, late-summer night from the Barbican.
These people, of which I am certainly one, enjoy Stewart’s blend of comedy and gravitas, his constant self-deprecation with a readiness to tackle each of the plethora of issues put to him. The crowd meet his answers with increasing nods, laughs, yeses and rounds of applause. They, like him, acknowledge the drastic change to have taken place in the last two decades, referring to the societal naivety of the 1990s and 2000s as “thinking we’d reached the end of history”. In his eyes, Cameron, Milliband, Balls and the lot didn’t realise how much the 2008 financial crash and Iraq war had changed people’s perceptions. Stewart and his audience now think they do.
But even this conclusion begs bigger, tougher questions. You can realise the size of the shift, but that is less important than how it changed. The height of controversy during the evening was Stewart suggesting that France is a safe country and Britain must stop the small boats; on the topic of Scottish independence, blame turned to Westminster alone, when politicians coming together in East London to talk about Scottish independence is also fuel for SNP supporters. Does the identification of problems necessarily put you in a position to solve them? Rory Stewart thinks so. Does accountability for past failures absolve you of responsibility? That’s harder for him to say. It won’t stop him trying.
Tom Holland was brilliant. Funny and tougher with Stewart than expected, both men demonstrated why they have become such prominent figures in the world of history and politics. The rest is just rather more complicated.