Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Rory Stewart has said he found it “painful” to watch Conservative Party “turn right”, arguing that electoral reform is the only way to close a “gaping hole in the center of British politics”.
Speaking to an audience of Edinburgh festival fringe, Stewart said a shift away from the UK’s first-past-the-post system was needed so that “new parties, new ideas, new opportunities” could break through.
He said this would be an important corrective to a “wooden, stiff and boring” Labor and Conservative party in “la-la-land”.
Stewart was a candidate to be leader of the Tory Party in 2019 in the contest which was ultimately won by Boris Johnson, but was expelled from the party by Johnson later that year.
“There is certainly enormous space for a new party. In Scotland it should be a liberal, unionist party, in other words a party that believes in Britain, which is not a right-wing populist party. In England it should be a really strong, dynamic party in the middle, he said.
He cited the example of Teal independents in Australia as a possible model. They are independent candidates united by their combination of blue, the traditional color of the centre-right Left, with green views on the climate.
Stewart added that he would “love to get back” into frontline politics, which he left three years ago, but this would “probably depend” on electoral reforms.
Asked whether he would vote for Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, he reluctantly chose Sunak, even though his expulsion from the party means he is unable to vote.
He shared with the audience his feelings of dissatisfaction with politics, which he described as “an incredibly bogus profession” where it had been “impossible to get real change” both for his constituents as an MP and at policy level as a minister – because of the “incredibly complicated” British political system. He added that it had been “nonsense, I was doing Africa politics when I knew nothing about it”.
After reflecting on his “difficult” time working under Johnson, then foreign secretary, he said he had concluded he was a “truly terrible person” who lost the “trust and respect” of his junior ministers.
He recalled regularly becoming “very angry” at his lack of understanding of details and decisions he would make, such as congratulating the Kenyan government despite accusations of electoral corruption, asking ambassadors to write “optimistic” dispatches from their country, and arrive at morning meetings with sound. “as he had read the Economist in the bath the night before”.
Any attempt at confrontations with Johnson would result in being smoked out of charm. “I would be outside three minutes later as an abused partner,” he recalled.
Stewart said that as he approaches his 50th birthday, he wants to focus the rest of his career on “lead[ing] a global movement” to improve the impact of international development work, citing its failure to reduce poverty levels in sub-Saharan Africa since 1980 as a reason.
He would like charities to focus on cash grants given directly to those in need rather than spending money on expensive staff from Western countries who make decisions for local people.
As a staunch unionist, he said he would back the campaign for Scotland to remain part of the UK, as “nothing gets better by drawing borders”, as exemplified by Brexit.
He would rather not see a referendum, as instead of helping to put issues to bed, he believes they are “polarizing and divisive”.
But if one did take place, he recommended Gordon Brown as a “fantastic voice” to lead the pro-union campaign in his place.