In a world where Boris Johnson may become the new prime minister, it’s no surprise that Rory Stewart has been portrayed as a sensible alternative. Between his mildly sensible opposition to the other candidates’ Brexit proposals, to his quirky and unconventional social media campaign of cross-country meet-and-greet, Stewart seems to have won over much of the general public.
Playing into that short-lived popularity minutes into Tuesday’s Tory leadership debate, he slipped off his tie, perhaps in a bid to appear more relatable. Stewart said: “I thought maybe if I took my tie off, we could get back to reality.” Though this quick manoeuvre may have been a lightbulb moment in his mind, it served to highlight what’s becoming increasingly clear each day that this leadership race rolls on: Stewart is out of touch.
On Monday, justice secretary David Gauke, an ally of the international development secretary of state, said: “Rory is the only candidate Boris would fear. He’s the David to Boris’s Goliath,”
But while Stewart often positions himself as a more liberal option to other Tories, and is frequently labelled as a Conservative party “outsider” in the media, Stewart is more similar to his Tory counterparts than he’d like to admit.
The most obvious similarity is Stewart’s privilege. He even mentioned this as one of his weaknesses on Channel 4's Tory leadership debate over the weekend. Like much of the political elite, his journey from Eton and Oxford – where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE), the subject of choice for many British MPs – propelled him into a career at the foreign office. And let’s not forget, he was also once a private tutor to Prince William and Harry.
Perhaps less apparent is the fact that Stewart’s voting record is in line with other Conservative MPs. He has generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights, one of which being his choice to back the bedroom tax and support moves against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability. He has also consistently voted against raising welfare benefits in line with prices. And despite saying he is in favour of women’s rights, just like many of the other candidates, he voted against pressuring the government to change abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.
Even if Stewart seems to genuinely believe he is progressive, his decisions can often lack a thorough understanding of the issues that the public face. In his article for The Guardian, Stewart said he would like to “bridge the gap between the referendum result and parliament through a citizens’ assembly”, which he later expanded on during an interview with Andrew Marr, in which he proposed calling 50,000 people from the electoral register himself. “You’d use a polling company to make sure they’re representative of the country – north against south, women against men, Brexit against no-Brexit,” he added.
There are many issues with a citizen’s assembly that Stewart does not acknowledge. The most basic issue being the lengthy time commitment. It would exclude voters with care responsibilities or those who cannot afford to take significant leave from work. So, even if the chosen single parent is able to find the time needed to take part, they’d have to secure a sufficient amount of funding and child-care in order to do so. Clearly, this is not remotely “representative of the country”.
And let’s not forget Stewart’s penchant for introducing a National Citizenship Service (NCS) for 16 year-olds. The aim of the programme is, apparently, to bring young people from various socio-economic backgrounds and parts of the country together for two weeks to learn about people different from themselves and another two weeks giving back to the community.
While the current National Citizenship Service (NCS) program itself is a rewarding experience for young people – 96 per cent of respondents to an NCS survey would recommend it to other teenagers and 90 per cent felt more confident as a result of it – making it compulsory completely disregards the troubles that working class youth face.
Mingling with people from different schools, cultures, and classes may give young people an understanding of those from other backgrounds and a world outside their own, but it’s not enough to solve inequality in the British education system.
According to Teach First, the UK has the greatest link between low income and low academic attainment in any other developed country. Only 21 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals go to university while 85 per cent of privately educated students do. Additionally, last year, the average fee for attending a top private school was around £17,000 a year. In contrast, state schools in England received around £4,000-£6,000 per pupil.
A better alternative to a compulsory NCS may be to integrate voluntary work into the curriculum in a more homogenised way and focus on using that money and effort to sort out the issues that students who lack privilege face.
While candidates briefly discussed education on the BBC debate, with Stewart expressing his enthusiasm for the government investing more into public services, he didn’t mention much by way of a tangible plan.
It’s true that many of us despise the idea of Johnson becoming our next prime minister, but mildly disagreeing with some aspects of an opposing candidate’s campaign, with nothing new or concrete to offer, is not enough of a reason to be selected as our new prime minister. As terrifying as the chaos of a Johnson premiership may be, the remaining options aren’t much more comforting either.