Rory Stewart Walks On

By Arabella Hamilton, Account Executive, Cicero Group

A rare occasion took place in Westminster this week.

Rory Stewart, International Development Secretary, turned walker extraordinaire, turned unsuccessful leadership candidate, paused his trademark #RoryWalks for a moment to address a room of eager under-35s. Invited to speak at the Onward event back when he was Prisons Minister, tickets for Rory’s ‘After Hours’ event sold out, and a gaggle of politicos waited outside for hope of some empty seats.

After the ceremonial on-stage removal of the tie, he opened: “people think the past few weeks have been about walking. In reality, it’s just been a lot of standing: standing, and listening”.

In many ways, Onward, the centre-right think tank, is the perfect territory for Stewart. Onward was born in response to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche – translated as either ‘onward’ or ‘on the move’ – both of which fit in every sense with Stewart’s new brand. Stewart is coming for the centre ground, and by the mood in the room, it’s very happy to have him.

Despite coming fifth behind Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, Stewart is showing no sign of stopping. He’s on a trajectory to capitalise on the momentum that he’s gained throughout the leadership race. It’s not clear that he knows exactly what that looks like. For now, he appears to be emerging as the de facto leader of the moderate camp of the Conservative Party, for whom the idea of a Boris government embracing a no-deal scenario is frightening.

He focussed the event on ideas generation for policies that will regain the centre ground – ground which he believes the Conservative Party has lost. Think: tackling knife crime, social care, homelessness, the treatment of immigrants, funding for teachers and nurses, appropriate protections for care leavers, and more.

Unlike many of his colleagues, he used the platform to ask the audience questions – “of opportunity, hope, fairness, national pride and the environment which do you prioritise most?”; “if you could pick one thing in the UK that you would be embarrassed to show someone from another country, what would it be?”; “how many of you would never consider voting Conservative?”.

The most interesting response was to the latter question. The room, as quantified by a show of hands, was made up of around 50% Conservative members, 20% Conservative voters, 20% who were willing to be persuaded and 10% who would never consider voting Conservative but wanted to hear his ideas. He wants to concentrate on the latter 30% who he hopes can be convinced that the Conservative Party is the place for centrists who want to get policies sorted outside of Brexit.

As the Labour party plunges itself into another anti-Semitism controversy, it will be interesting to watch for what their alternative is to Stewart. He is positioning himself perfectly to go for those in the centre and on the right of the Labour Party that have been alienated by Corbyn. This is a significant move given reports of the number of people that have left due to either the Brexit position, anti-Semitism, the leadership or all of the above.

He sounds like he’s in it for the long game and will continue to position himself as the sensible alternative to calmly steer Britain away from the Brexit chaos and onto the serious, engaging policies that have been forgotten for the past three years. With Johnson pushing his way to the head of the polls in the run-up to the leadership election, Stewart is very aware that his time is yet to come.

“How do we keep this conversation going?”, he asked the audience. His staffers will be asking the same question of his momentum.

For now, #RoryWalksOn.

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Arabella Hamilton

Account Executive

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