The final five candidates, Johnson and Stewart included, are facing off in a BBC debate, awkwardly mounted on stools, like a decrepit boy band. But the others, frustrated by Stewart’s sudden prominence, turn on him. Exhausted and ill, he is unable to fight back. In a striking moment of resignation he removes his tie and sighs. Days later he is knocked out of the race.
In truth, Stewart would never have beaten Johnson. A former soldier and diplomat, he made his name walking across Afghanistan and then serving as a provincial governor of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, writing two best-selling books — “The Places in Between” (2004) and “The Prince of the Marshes” (2006) — along the way. His romantic, paternalistic, old-school Toryism, forged out of these experiences and his boarding-school childhood, would have been out of the place in the Conservative Party of 1989, let alone 2019.
In his disarmingly honest memoir, “How Not to Be a Politician,” he acknowledges that he would not have made it to Parliament at all without several hefty slices of luck. He chose to run at a moment when the party was desperate for candidates, having lost dozens of members of Parliament to an expenses scandal, and during a brief experiment in which all voters, rather than just party members, were allowed to select the Conservative candidate.
Having failed to win the leadership, he ended up leaving politics altogether, except for an abortive run at becoming mayor of London. Instead he ended up co-hosting Britain’s most successful political podcast and returning to academia as a fellow at Yale.
Stewart’s story of his nine years in Parliament is vastly superior to the standard windy self-justifications of many ex-politicians. For a start, he can write. “How Not to Be a Politician” is entertaining, fast-paced and easy to read without being patronizing. His vivid description of Johnson — “the furtive cunning of his eyes, which made it seem as though an alien creature had possessed his reassuring body and was squinting out of the sockets” — is just one of the phrases that sticks in the memory.
Because Johnson threw him out of the parliamentary party, Stewart has the freedom to be delightfully acerbic about most of his former colleagues. Few come out well. While Johnson is the main villain, an immoral charlatan driven purely by self-interest, David Cameron hardly fares better: an empty suit with no career experience outside politics, who prizes loyalty and PR over material achievements. Liz Truss’s disastrous 49-day premiership is foreshadowed by her inane instructions to Stewart when she was his departmental boss.
The book also has a welcome and unusual focus on policy rather than stale gossip. The best chapters are those in which Stewart, promoted to ministerial office, is battling the sclerotic British state and a civil service deeply suspicious of the carousel of politicians that deposits a new minister with no relevant knowledge or experience every few months. He has five postings across four departments in the space of four years, and in each of them he finds an abject mess. We learn in some detail about such problems as inadequate protection against air pollution, and wildly impractical and jargon-filled development plans for sub-Saharan Africa. None of which he has time to do much about before being moved on.
The justice department is a particular hotbed of learned helplessness. As prisons minister he is confronted with filthy, overcrowded, drug-ridden and violent jails. There is little money for improvement, and morale among prison officers is at rock bottom. Stewart spends his time trying to turn around the 10 worst prisons with a “tough love” approach, with some success — though none of the fundamental problems were resolved and are arguably worse today.
Stewart himself is a fascinating mess of contradictions. He is full of shame and self-loathing but also seems certain that he should be in a top job. He both hates the grubby compromises of political life and also makes himself proficient in them, forcing himself into the cabinet before his final failure. These tensions make him a compelling central character. They will also be of interest to anyone considering a political career themselves, as an insight into the kinds of things — shame, dignity, principles — one has to sacrifice to succeed in modern politics. Not a situation, sadly, that is confined to Britain.
But it does make you wonder if he would have been able to cope had he somehow won that leadership election (albeit almost anyone would have been preferable to Johnson). Stewart’s political beliefs are all over the place. He reports the baleful effects of spending cuts across the departments he works in — bemoaning underfunded prisons and pleading for a little more cash for environmental improvements. Yet in his leadership campaign he pledged the most aggressive approach to debt reduction of any candidate, with no indication of how it would be achieved.
He claims to be a localist, but his approach as a minister was to take personal operational control of everything from emergency flood management to fixing prison windows. He is both skeptical of Western interference in the developing world and also wants to double the size of Britain’s on-the-ground development teams. It seems he can’t help wanting to be his father — an adventuring colonial administrator and spy — while also rejecting the premise of his career.
The reader is left believing that Stewart is readying himself for a return to politics, but it’s hard to see him succeeding. If anything, this book is best read as a guide to why his type of old-fashioned Tory died out, never quite sure how to transform their nostalgia for a Britain that no longer exists into a program for tomorrow. Not that this will stop him from trying.
Sam Freedman is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government in London and a former adviser to the British government.
How Not to Be a Politician
Penguin Press. 431 pp. $29
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