The Times Rory Stewart interview: Keep feeding my kids toast if you want my vote
The mayoral hopeful wants Londoners to offer him a bed for the night so he can win them over. Rosie Kinchen got the sofa bed out
All week I have been busy preparing. I have stocked up on earplugs, and suggested he bring an eye mask (there are no curtains in the sitting room). I have even wiped off the suspicious sticky marks that have appeared on our fold-out sofa. But we have only one shower. Should I let him in first? He, of course, is an expert in sleepover etiquette. He claims to have slept in more than 500 homes during a 6,000-mile trek across Asia. Surely one of them must have had a toddler who made him read stories while they sat on the loo?
It is clear from the moment he arrives at my London home, in Camberwell, on Friday night — after the kids have gone to bed — that he is in his element. He has come by train and is carrying a large box of Milk Tray chocolates and a rucksack, like an exceedingly polite school prefect leading a Duke of Edinburgh Awards expedition. He is dressed smartly in chinos and a jumper. He and my partner, also a Rory, talk politely about their commutes, until the weirdness of the situation overwhelms me: “Is this when we put our keys in the fruit bowl?” I interrupt. Stewart smiles indulgently at my bad joke.
More than 3,000 Londoners have invited him to stay, Stewart trying to pick people who can give him an experience of the city different from his own. “I’ve been in Tulse Hill, I’ve been in Stockwell, I’ve been in Bromley, I’ve been in Chipping Barnet and I’ve been in Newham . . .” he says, his brow furrowed as he ticks off his previous sleepover spots on one hand. In Newham he slept on the floor of a council flat and visited a chicken shop where someone had been shot. In Bromley he slept at a homeless shelter where one man was “very open about the fact that he had been let out of prison on Monday”. It’s not clear what this man made of sleeping next to the former minister for prisons. Stewart was given a mop and told to clean the floor.
Stewart, 47, is a toff with a taste for danger; the political world’s answer to Bear Grylls. He has had a tumultuous 12 months in politics — running for the Tory leadership, quitting the cabinet because he felt unable to serve the eventual winner, Boris Johnson, and being expelled from the Conservative Party for opposing a no-deal Brexit.
He had held five ministerial positions in four years, culminating in a seat at the cabinet table as international development secretary. He now says that Johnson made it clear to him that he had a future in the party if he toed the line: “He made no formal offers but what he said is, ‘Rory, you are very talented, we need you in the cabinet.’”
The announcement in October that he was to run as an independent candidate for London mayor was met with some bemusement. For the past nine years he has been representing Penrith and the Border, 300 miles from the capital. Compared with the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver who grew up in Tooting, and the Conservative candidate, Shaun Bailey, who grew up in a council house in North Kensington, his London connections seem slim.
In fact, he and his wife, Shoshana Clark, a charity worker who has taken six months off to support his campaign, live in South Kensington with their two sons, in the house where he grew up. (She is apparently OK with his nocturnal wanderings, even if it does mean she’s left with the childcare.) “My London roots are quite deep,” he says. “My grandfather was a GP in south London and looked after patients right through the Blitz. My grandmother was a counsellor in London for 25 years. My far-back ancestor was lord mayor of London in 1360 . . . I walk my five-year-old to the same school my father walked me to when I was five.”
Stewart says he loathed life in Westminster. He hated being cooped up in an office, he says. “I’m obsessed with fresh air. You’re stuck under a three-line whip for nine years where you can’t go eight minutes away from the lobby.” As an MP he has said that he felt himself “getting stupider by the day”. He went for the Tory leadership only because he felt that someone “had to represent the centre ground”. He had tried to persuade David Gauke, Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan, who had all refused.
Stewart has already eaten dinner at home with his sons, but I have made pudding: Eton mess. What else do you prepare for a gluten-free old Etonian? Sitting at our kitchen island, he ponders the latest twist in his eventful career between mouthfuls of strawberry.
The mayoral race was a chance to get out and get his hands dirty again. “I am deeply operational,” he says. “The only job I enjoyed fully in government was as prisons minister.” He made sure he was in a prison at least once a week, so he could spot problems and find ways to fix them. “The way change is made really, from my point of view, is very close to the front line.” This, he believes, would be the benefit of being a mayor: “When I am on the Tube, people will poke me in the chest and say why is this delayed, what has happened to the signalling? If I’m walking in Lambeth, someone will step out of a shop and ask what to do about their son getting in trouble with the police.”
Recent polling suggests that Londoners aren’t yet convinced: he is in third place in the polls with 13%, behind Khan on 45% and Bailey on 23%.
It would be easy to mock the gap-year enthusiasm were it not for the fact that London faces serious challenges. Its murder rate is the highest it has been in more than a decade, with 149 people killed last year. In my neck of the woods, Camberwell, gang violence is increasingly hard to avoid. Returning home at rush hour recently, I had to shelter in a takeaway shop while teenagers chased each other down the street with knives.
Stewart says that adding 25p to council tax bills would fund more officers on the street. “I would return right back to the borough and ward level. So, unlike Sadiq, who keeps two but in practice usually one officer in each ward, I’d have six.” He would also set targets to reduce violent street crime and increase detention, and he would resign if he did not meet them (a headline-grabbing trick he learnt as prisons minister).
He has also pledged to build 250,000 affordable homes within five years, their prices linked to the average earnings in the area. Surplus Transport for London land would be held in a “mayor’s building company” and handed to developers, housing associations and councils. And he is considering a tax on Amazon delivery vehicles to help subsidise the Tube.
Dessert has dragged on, and it’s time for bed. I had expected Stewart to be a flannel-pyjama kinda guy, possibly even with a monogrammed pocket, so I’m a little disappointed when he emerges from the bathroom in tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt. I fetch him water, while he unwraps the earplugs and settles down on the sofa bed to read some John le Carré. Upstairs in bed, I ponder the recent burglaries on our street and realise it might not be a bad idea to have a mayoral candidate blocking the entrance.
Stewart is a pragmatic politician, not an ideological one. He was a member of the Labour Party as a student and describes his housing policy as “quite socialist”. He was “proud” when Khan was elected. “I think it is a good thing for London to have a Muslim mayor. But Khan is always blaming someone else; arguing that ‘it’s not my fault, I don’t have any money, it’s central government,’” Stewart says. “I think that’s because on some level he’s not confident at running stuff, he’s more confident as an adviser.”
Confidence is not a quality Stewart lacks, but he has sometimes failed to connect. At Eton he annoyed his peers by speaking in perfect paragraphs — he had to force himself to insert “ums” and “ahs” into his speech. While others in the Conservative Party leadership race admitted having smoked marijuana, Stewart said he had once smoked opium at a wedding in Iran. It is this whiff of imperial Britain that sits uncomfortably with a city whose population is 40% non-white. “My sense is that people care less about my background than they do about what I am going to do for the city. They want somebody to make the city safer, to build affordable housing.” Stewart is convinced he is the man to get things done.
He is already up and about when I come downstairs at 7am. He has packed away the sofa bed and pretends the baby did not wake him in the night. He turns down the offer of a shower (I try not to judge). He talks about dinosaurs with the toddler and feeds the baby grapes while I sip my coffee and wonder why on this particular Saturday morning all hell has not yet broken loose. The kids seem enthralled by this strange man who has appeared during the night like Santa.
This is when I realise Stewart’s #ComeKipWithMe stunt might actually be a good idea. He has emerged from the ugliest few years in politics looking like an honourable man. His trump card may just be that he is a basically decent guy.
“If I become mayor, I would like to do this every week, week in and week out,” he says. On balance, we’d probably have him back.
Stewart on his Afghan walk