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Royal tutor to MI6 spy to Prime Minister? Here's why the Tories are all talking about Rory Stewart

He was a rank outsider but could now be the main threat to Boris Johnson.

Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart.
Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart.
Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images

HE’S DESCRIBED HIMSELF as the “Marmite candidate” in the Conservative race, has denied working as an MI6 spy and previously tutored princes William and Harry – so it’s little wonder that the UK media is all talk about Rory Stewart.

Another reason is that he’s suddenly emerged as potentially the main rival to Boris Johnson’s leadership of his party and the country.

Stewart just about scraped over the line in last week’s first round of MP voting and isn’t guaranteed to progress after today’s second vote but if he does his momentum could propel him to the run-off vote against Johnson.

So who is this outsider who’s attempting to turn a seemingly one-sided contest into a genuine race?

Firstly, let’s address this talk that he’s possibly be a former spy. The story has been making headlines today and is actually very plausible.

Stewart is currently the UK’s International Development Secretary and most of his career has been spent in far-flung places on behalf of the United Kingdom.

After leaving Oxford, Stewart followed a similar career path to his diplomat father and entered the UK’s Foreign Office. After serving in Indonesia, Stewart was posted to Montenegro following the Kosovo War, a conflict that saw British troops on the ground in the Balkans.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Stewart supported, he became the deputy governor in the southern Iraqi region of Maysan, second only to an American representative.

In a book about his experience called The Prince of the Marshes, Stewart called the job “Mission Impossible”.

These postings to conflict zones on behalf of the Britain are what has given rise to questions about whether he acted as a spy for M16.

The story was plastered across the front page of today’s Daily Telegraph, a paper which is supporting Boris Johnson and whom it also pays £275,000-a-year.

Stewart was asked about the MI6 claims yesterday and denied he was a spy, but as has been pointed out he would be precluded under the UK’s Official Secrets Act from admitting it if it were true.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, Stewart acknowledged that the law wouldn’t allow him to answer the question if it were indeed correct.

“No, and in fact that the law wouldn’t allow newspapers to reveal the identity of intelligence officers,” he said.

I can definitely say that I served my country and if someone asked if I was a spy I would say no.

Stewart also ‘served his country’ in a rather more unconventional way in the early 90s when he tutored young princes Harry and William in maths and English. The posting came about after he met Prince Charles while a student at Eton.

Stewart told the New Yorker about it in 2010 and also confirmed a story about getting stuck in a royal safe room and being aided by Prince Charles who was wearing his dressing gown at the time.

Stewart’s time in far-flung places was not just confined to his time as a British representative. He has written a number of books, including one best-selling travel memoir entitled The Places in Between that detailed a walk across Afghanistan.

Stewart has attempted to bring this approach to his politics and has been engaging in a series of walks around Britain, something he says is about engaging people in person.

In one such encounter, Stewart encountered Irish hip-hop trio Hare Squad while on a jaunt around north London.

Stewart’s approach has been criticised by some in the Conservative party, with one Tory MP telling the Financial Times that his “weird tour around Britain seems self-indulgent”.

Others have likened his approach to another insurgent campaign, that which won Jeremy Corbyn the Labour leadership in 2015.

Stewart, who himself was a Labour member at age 18, has described himself as a “deep Conservative” but has also shown some admiration for Corbyn’s approach.

“He simply did it because he enjoyed talking to people and he believes in what he says and one of the things that I’ve found so invigorating about it is that it feels like much more old-fashioned politics,” Stewart told the BBC, adding that he’s welcoming of the support he’s received from non-traditional Tory voters.

I’m not ashamed of the fact that a lot of LibDem and Labour voters say they want to vote for us, that’s the way that you win elections and you can only change the country if you win an election.

Stewart and his team are hoping that he can be seen as the ‘Stop Boris’ candidate and should he make it through the second round of voting today he’ll face Johnson in a BBC debate tonight.

Stewart received the votes of 19 MPs last week and he needs to reach 33 today to proceed.

Theresa May part 2?

Stewart’s defining policy in the current leadership contest is that he supports Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, unlike the other contenders who are seeking a renegotiation.

It has been speculated that May was one of Stewart’s supporters in last week’s vote and May’s de-facto deputy prime minister David Lidington yesterday endorsed him.

His Brexit stance has seen him be regarded as perhaps the soft-Brexit candidate, gaining support from Conservative remainers.

That pitch may help him gain some support but it remains to be seen if it wins him enough backing in a party that is ardently committed to Brexit.

It also of course is problematic given the fact that the Withdrawal Agreement has been defeated three times and that the parliamentary arithmetic has not changed.

Cabinet meeting Stewart arrives for a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street. Source: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

The fear for Conservatives is that Stewart’s approach would merely be a repeat of May’s, which of course proved unsuccessful.

He argues that the approach is the only one on offer and that the contenders promising otherwise are not grounded in reality.

“The only way to get it through quickly is to take the only deal in existence, a 550 page document. Now I think three-quarters of the people who are voting for the Brexit Party are voting because they want to get it done….. it’s not the details of the deal they have a problem with,” Stewart argues.

The electric shock of the European elections will have shown people just how impatient people are to get it done, and secondly I will have convinced people through this campaign is that the only way to get it done is to get another 45 votes in parliament.

“So let’s take the fresh mandate that I would be lucky enough to get from Conservative Party members and let’s get it done.”

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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