The government minister worries his entire party could be consumed by no deal maniaby Tom Clark / April 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Shortly before the referendum, I recall reading Matthew Parris in the Times arguing that a Leave vote would “destroy” moderate conservatism in this country. At the time, this struck me as columnist’s hyperbole. This week, however, I met with prisons minister, one-nation Tory and the unlikely star salesman for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Rory Stewart, and found him gripped with a very real fear that something like the Parris prediction could soon come to pass.
Gently spoken, measured yet precise, Stewart arrived in parliament in 2010 with a CV that was more Class of 1890 than 1990: Eton, Black Watch, Tutor to the Royal Princes, Oxford, Foreign Office, adventuring and travel writing in Afghanistan and then running provinces in occupied Iraq, all before he was much over 30. As a youngster he had supported Labour, but moved over to the Tories, he says, because of the doctrinaire way that Blair and even Brown talked about the Bush-era wars: “their neo-conservatism made me a Conservative… it was seeing how far their rhetoric was from the reality…”
That might seem peculiar given the uncritical pro-American belligerence of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard in these years, but Stewart is right to identify a much older Tory tradition than defines itself by dealing in practicalities, not abstractions, and above all else—in speech and deed—facing the facts unflinchingly, and, as he puts it, “dealing with the world as it is.”
This loyal minister openly worries that even mainstream Tories could soon lapse into a “no deal, never deal” stance which could finally kill off this tradition for good. In the looming leadership election, which he does not rule out running in, he fears ordinarily pragmatic cabinet ministers could compete by advocating crashing out, on the assumption that after a bump and a bounceback we “could get back to being a moderate, centre-right party.” It won’t work though, he warns, because a no deal Brexit would not only be “a statement about your attitude to economics, rural communities, manufacturing industry, the Union,” it would also be “a statement about your attitude to reality.” The attitude the Tories are flirting with isn’t, he says, Conservative at all: “the mindset is ‘Trump’.”
Fittingly, I end up interviewing the greatest walker in parliament—he’s been known to get up before dawn to walk between Oxford…