A day after resigning from the Conservative Party and declaring he was standing for London Mayor as an Independent, Rory Stewart was, naturally, off on one of the walks that enlivened his Tory leadership bid. This time it was to Bow – a visit to Roman Road and then to the pioneering Bromley-by-Bow Centre, which was hosting a Fun Palaces community culture day of action for local families.
Among those he interacted with, quizzing him about his ideas, were a local Labour councillor and excited young Conservatives. Stewart has promised to walk around all 32 London boroughs in the seven months until polling day – he’s been in Golders Green today and later this week will be “south, west – and maybe back east too if we can” says his campaign team. We’re invited to check Stewart’s Twitter to find out the details.
Stewart’s candidacy generated lots of social media reaction – from gentle mockery about his preference for Pret A Manger over pubs, to the rivetingly vicious. Journalist and former Hammersmith & Fulham Conservative councillor Harry Phibbs called his candidacy “an ego trip” sustained by “a sugar rush of media adulation” and predicted that “an opinion poll in January will show him on four percent, and he will think of some excuse to stand down”. Phibbs further anticipated “a farewell statement with some pious guff about “inclusion through diversity. Then he will move on to the next bit of showboating. Probably some ludicrous celebrity TV prog”. Labour spin doctor Damian McBride tweeted: “I’ve seen some self-regarding people in my time in politics, but Rory Stewart really does take the biscuit, then put a sticker of his own face on it, and spend all day licking it”.
But Palash Davé, a friend of Stewart’s since school and university days, points out that before accepting his teaching position at Harvard, Stewart had considered seeking a research and advocacy role in the field of urban poverty. “He’s extremely unlikely to win, but he’s serious about winning,” Davé says. “Boris is out for Boris. Rory is out for putting ideas into practice and wouldn’t just use a mayoral run as a platform for something else”.
Labour communications veteran Gez Sagar, who worked on the 2008 Ken Livingstone mayoral campaign and was previously press secretary to Neil Kinnock and John Smith, while admiring of Sadiq Khan as “the most effective British opponent of Trump, a British advocate of decency and respectfulness” also praises Stewart for his “unorthodox style” and for “breaking free of the constrained formulaic language of politics,” too. “I would say the candidate who proves best able to bring people together is likely to do very well. I hope it will be an exciting and illuminating contest. It is so good it is happening in London.”
Stewart’s walking – which he insists is “listening”, not “campaigning” – is a nice trademark, but much more will soon be needed in the way of policy and strategy. To get anywhere, he needs to establish himself as Khan’s main challenger, ahead of the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey, Liberal Democrat Siobhan Benita and the Greens’ Siân Berry. But he lacks both their London politics experience and a political party machine of voter data and network of campaigners of the kind Ken Livingstone could still draw on when he ran – and won – as an Independent in 2000.
And Stewart, for all his individuality, is saddled with his record of nine years as a Conservative MP, voting for benefit cuts and against measures backing EU citizens’ rights and for addressing climate change. “He’s not George Galloway or Martin Bell,’ says veteran Tower Hamlets Labour activist Graham Taylor. “He’s got Tory establishment written through him like a stick of rock”. More than a third of London voters are now BME Londoners, who overall lean strongly to Labour. Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust says he “really can’t see” Stewart appealing to this voting population, whose top issues are employment and the economy: “While I get that he’s more liberal socially and has plenty of international experience, most voters have more tailored voting preferences than that”.
Stewart voted Remain in the EU referendum, yet backed Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement before becoming a high profile Brexit rebel. He’s a paternalistic One Nation Tory rather than an arch-free marketeer, but it’s not immediately clear who his political tribe is. Does that matter?
“Londoners like an outsider and someone who seems a bit different,” says market research strategist Daisy Powell-Chandler. “That is part of why they voted for Boris. But he could also call upon the outer boroughs, many of whom will continue to back the official Conservative candidate, either for reasons of loyalty or because they actually like the Johnson national government and Shaun Bailey. Taking votes from the Lib Dems and Sadiq Khan will depend on Stewart being able to create a distinctive London-centric policy platform with real answers on housing, transport and crime – and convincing woke Londoners to like yet another white Etonian male”.
The LSE’s Tony Travers thinks Stewart has potential as a “we need to restart politics” candidate who could win over disillusioned Labour voters. But does horror at Westminster politics and national political leaders translate into London mayoral race support? Robert Gordon Clark of London Communications Agency suggests the terrier-like campaigning Stewart showed in the Tory leadership race may be key – “Critically, how might he try to get under Sadiq’s skin on the stump?”
How have the other campaigns reacted to Stewart’s entrance on to the scene two weeks after he told a HowTheLightGetsInFestival audience in Kenwood that his political career would be over if the Prime Minister achieved a new Brexit deal? Bailey, thought lacklustre by some Conservatives and who, private polling suggests, is currently on the same level of support as Stewart, generously says he welcomes any new candidate to the race to hold Sadiq Khan to account, and that he hopes the campaign will focus on policies not personalities.
Outside the Bailey camp, some party colleagues don’t hide their anger at Stewart’s presumption, a year into Bailey’s candidacy. “Apart from Heathrow expansion – which will make it very difficult to attract votes in west and south-west London – what London policy does Rory Stewart have? He just walks around, which is what 8 million Londoners do every day” says London Assembly Member Andrew Boff, who Bailey beat to the mayoral nomination.
Benita has been more directly combative, calling Stewart’s attempt to paint himself as a new kind of politician ridiculous. She’s adamant that he and she are going for different pools of voters, with the Lib Dems focused on avowed Remainers, who she identifies as the majority in London. Running as an Independent in 2012, she was passed over for media coverage, particularly by the BBC, on the grounds of lacking a political track record or proven support. She says she is determined not to let that happen again. Shine a light on us all, she challenges broadcasters and editors.
Voter trends and polling so far continue to suggest that the 2020 campaign is Sadiq Khan’s to lose. He won 44.2 per cent of first preference votes in the 2016 election against Zac Goldsmith’s 35 per cent, soaring to 65 per cent after second preferences were added. A December 2018 You Gov poll for Queen Mary University of London had Khan 27 points ahead of Bailey. A poll in the same series this May showed only a small percentage of Londoners principally blamed Khan for the rise in knife crime.
Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks says, “London is Labour, notwithstanding the problems [the party] is having” and that Stewart’s role is to “slightly shake things up” before coming third or fourth. Author and journalist Ed West says Khan as a figurehead “represents what Londoners feel about their identity, a vaguely soft-left global-minded openness”, and, for reasons of demography and Brexit, “I don’t think any Tory could win London and won’t for a long, long time”.
But so much has changed so quickly in politics, including the Lib Dems winning the largest share of the London vote at this year’s European elections, and much more water will have flowed under the bridge by May 2020 – a general election and either Brexit or else turmoil around Brexit’s failing to happen. Surely this will have some bearing on the battleground of London politics? Gez Sagar insists that “no political party can take London [Mayor] for granted. It’s a one-on-one competition about credibility, reputation, keeping people safe”.
Key factors to consider are how the supplementary vote system will play out. Might a consensual, bridge-building underdog swing it in the second round of votes? And can Rory Stewart’s emphasis on voter engagement help boost turnout in the London Mayor election, which has yet to exceed 2016’s 45.6 per cent? That would be an achievement for Stewart, however else he fares.
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