UK Politics

Rory Stewart: wildcard can win even if he loses the London mayoralty

BY Finn McRedmond   /  4 October 2019

Rory Stewart wants to be the next Mayor of London. He’s quitting as an MP, resigning from the Conservative Party, and running as an independent candidate in 2020.

Stewart was a prisons minister, and then International Development Secretary before making waves in the Conservative leadership contest with his quirky campaigning style. He would show up in a town, with little warning, and chat to unsuspecting locals about politics on Rory’s so-called “listening tour.” He’d then package up shots of it nicely for social media – becoming something of a Twitter celebrity and a sort-of cult figure for about one month in the fever dream that was the Tory leadership contest this summer.

No doubt he’ll employ this tactic for his mayoral bid, hopping from borough to borough, Hampstead to Bethnal Green, debating with locals about all things London. Crucially for Stewart, running for London Mayor will allow him to excuse himself from the Brexit quagmire dominating parliament and toxifying almost every politician in the eyes of much of the country.

But can he win? On first glance, probably not. Even though Sadiq Khan was a successor to Boris as Mayor, London is a Labour city, and the incumbent looks like a shoo in. “Boris Johnson The Conservative Mayor” was a strange incident – a victory of charisma and charm not a product of an affiliation to the party. So, the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey – who has an interesting backstory but few of the instincts required of a politician – never really stood a chance, and thanks to Rory he might be better off cutting his losses and standing down now.

Stewart, it seems, will take votes off Bailey and probably slot into second place behind Khan. But, he might be in with more of a shot than we think. An angry electorate now uses these kinds of votes – in the same vein as European elections and local elections – to channel their views on national politics.

The party system has been disrupted since 2016 when the last mayoralty election took place. In that contest, in the first round, Labour got 1,148,716 votes (44.2%), the Tories 909,755 (35%), the Greens 150,673 (5.8%), and the Lib Dems 120,005 (4.6%).  Turnout was 45.3%.

This time the Lib Dems and the Greens could take serious votes off Labour. If Stewart can create a viral campaign aimed at moderate London and collect second preferences, in an era in which strange things are happening, he has a chance.

The wiggle room for Rory could reside in him neither being Labour or Tory. London is Remain, so Tories are out of the question right now. But Labour are still on the fence with their policy, and if Brexit isn’t resolved by the election in nine months time (honestly not unlikely…) Londoners could express some kind of Remainer-defiance that way. Or we could see Rory triumph under a backlash against Corbyn, who is mired in anti-semitism scandal and a lifelong eurosceptic.

Khan also hasn’t had a brilliant track record. He’s come under a lot of criticism for his record on policing and knife crime. He looks pretty ineffective, say his critics. Rory could capitalise on this.

But Stewart has other challenges. What does he offer? He isn’t fighting the hard left – Sadiq Khan is basically centrist, and it’s not like he’s taking on some right wing Brexit terror either – because no matter what Shaun Bailey’s views are, he was never going to win anyway. There are questions over whether he is different enough to energise Londoners, moving them away from the all too easy to harvest Labour vote.

So what is Stewart looking to get out of this? He is unlikely to win – Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border to London Mayor is quite the leap – but he was never going to win the leadership campaign either. Even though some of us thought he might for a few minutes.

His bid improved his national profile, and made him a recognisable face in UK politics.

A bid for London Mayor? Having been kicked out of the Tories by Boris Johnson, he might have struggled to win back his seat standing as an independent. Resigning from parliament to pursue a mayoral campaign ensures he can keep this public persona going, even from outside of the Commons.

And from there? We know Rory Stewart is endlessly ambitious. If he can maintain this presence for long enough, and capture the imagination of idealistic younger voters, by the time Brexit is all said and done there might be a better job waiting for him north of the river in the post-Boris era. That could be in the mid-2020s if Rory’s wing of the Tory tribe rejoins the main party.

Boris and Rory are usually referred to on a first name basis – that might not be the only thing they end up having in common.

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