Though Boris Johnson remains the clear favorite to take over from Theresa May as Britain’s next prime minister, there is a surprise rising star in the Conservative Party’s leadership contest: The outsider Rory Stewart.
The 46-year-old former diplomat is on a walking tour of Britain during the campaign, meeting voters and posting footage of these encounters and video diaries to his social media pages, in what many see as a refreshingly unorthodox approach for a Conservative.
Even his drug experience was different. While other candidates shame-facedly admitted to dalliances with cocaine or cannabis in their youth, Stewart told The Telegraph that he smoked opium at a wedding in Iran but it “had no effect…because I was walking 25 to 30 miles a day.”
Like Johnson, Stewart is an Old Etonian, educated at the same famous English public school before also following on, like Johnson, to the University of Oxford.
However, unlike Johnson, who read classics, Stewart studied politics, philosophy, and economics, a degree course that serves as a kind of finishing school for Britain’s governing establishment.
Stewart, who has an impressive intellect and is multilingual, filming himself speaking Dari with a man in London during the campaign, tutored Prince William and Prince Harry when they were schoolboys and he was a young man, and is a friend of their father, Charles, Prince of Wales.
The softly-spoken Scot also served for a while with the Black Watch, a battalion in the Scottish regiment of the British Army in which his late father had also served during World War II.
His father Brian Stewart was also a diplomat, working across Asia, including as British representative to Chairman Mao’s China and communist North Vietnam, before joining the country’s foreign intelligence service MI6, rising to be its assistant chief.
During his own diplomatic career with Britain’s Foreign Office, Stewart started in Indonesia before, aged just 26, becoming the country’s representative to Montenegro amid the Yugoslav Wars. He went on to hold senior governing roles in southern Iraqi provinces after the 2003 invasion, for which he received the OBE, a British honor.
Stewart then worked for a charity founded by Prince Charles and Afghanistan’s former President Hamid Karzai, called The Turquoise Mountain, which sought to preserve the country’s architectural and cultural heritage. He lived in Kabul during this period and concurrently lectured on human rights at Harvard University.
Finally, in 2010, he entered Parliament as a Conservative—for a brief period as a student he was a member of the left-wing Labour Party—after winning a rural seat at the border between England and Scotland, amid talk that he would one day attain high office.
Now, after stints as a minister for justice and then international development, he believes it is his time to lead, putting his name forward in a contest that, in Britain’s current political circumstances, nobody seriously believes the married father of two could win.
Yet, he is defying expectations. Many in his party thought he would not be able to win the support of enough Conservative Members of Parliament to secure a place on the ballot, but he did, and as other contenders fell away, some of their original supporters switched to him.
On the core issue of Bexit, Stewart is unique among the six candidates for the leadership; he ruled out completely Britain leaving the European Union without a deal, refusing to appease the so-called “hard Brexiteers” in his party, believing it would be an economic and social disaster.
He is also unique in maintaining the belief that May’s much-hated Withdrawal Agreement—rejected three times by Parliament and the undoing of her own prime ministership—is the best means of achieving Brexit because it is a detailed, concrete plan.
Stewart is standing out in the leadership campaign. He put in an assured performance during Sunday’s first television debate—shunned by Johnson but attended by all other candidates—casting himself as the reasonable, center-ground choice to unite party and country.
But whilst he is making a splash among the media and general public, Stewart is having less of an impact where it matters in this particular contest: Conservative Party members.
There are two parts to the Conservative Party leadership contest. During the first part, candidates over the course of several weeks attempt to win the support of MPs. Conservative MPs then vote, whittling the list of candidates down to two.
In the second part, the party membership votes to decide which of these two candidates will lead the party and, in this case, the country, too. For Stewart, the omens are not good.
Before Sunday’s debate, the pollster YouGov asked Conservative members which candidates they thought would make a good leader. Johnson is still the stand-out favorite among party members, ranking top at 77 percent.
Stewart, who has said he would not serve in a Johnson government because of their differences on Brexit and the economy, was at the bottom of the pile on 31 percent.