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The contest the Conservatives need is Boris v Rory

Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart
Johnson vs Stewart: what the country needs

I’ve finally put my finger on why I don’t want Rory Stewart to be PM. But before we get to that, let me say that the final round contest the Tories need to have is Boris v Rory. The Conservative Party has no idea what it’s about at the moment and these two offer the sharpest contrast, not just over Brexit but in their character and philosophy.

On Brexit, both men promise the impossible. Boris says he can renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement before October 31 or else walk away, but time has run out for renegotiation and Parliament will block a no-deal Brexit. Douze points then to Rory and his plan to plough on with the Withdrawal Agreement? Well, no – because while there isn’t a Commons majority for no deal there isn’t a majority for the agreement either, and Remainers hope that Rory’s language of “realism” is really about setting Britain up for the conclusion that Brexit simply can’t be done.

This is one of my biggest beefs with Rory. He says he wants to deliver Brexit but he largely talks about how difficult and dangerous it is, and we all know that’s the main reason why Remainers are excited about him. It’s unsustainable to present yourself as the only man who can lead us out of the EU when your support is rooted in those who are against it.

And while I’m listing flaws, someone also needs to ask what happened to his pledge as prisons minister to quit if conditions didn’t improve within a year. He’ll never get a chance to honour that promise because he moved to another job within 10 months. Rory’s record has not undergone nearly as much scrutiny as Boris’s.

Not that I’m calling him flaky. On the contrary, when it comes to character Rory is clearly the best of the two – and character is what Conservatism is all about. You cannot have freedom without virtue. That’s why it surprises many on the Left that Tories feel so warm about Boris: he flaunts conventions that they’re supposed to hold dear. By contrast, Rory’s talk of “humility” taps into that part of the Conservative psyche that is quietly Christian, that renounces populism or utopia in favour of charity and pragmatism. Boris is a sketch by Hogarth: the politics of beer and roast beef. Rory would make a wonderful Archbishop of Canterbury. These men are two sides of the same English coin.

That character difference extends to philosophy, offering a choice between a Conservatism that is tangible and distinct versus Conservatism as the search for consensus and harmony. Every candidate in this race talks about bringing the country back together, which is nice – but the Tories aren’t voting for pope here. In fact, Pope Francis himself has discovered that leadership involves making tough choices that inevitably divide us in two, and the more you try to put off decisions, the deeper, the more painful the inevitable rupture.

Rory doesn’t understand this. He talks about reaching out to the centre when Conservatives ought to be dragging the centre towards them –and it’s a troubling sign that he craves the approval of men and women who have never voted Conservative and never will vote Conservative. The job of a leader is to win converts, not to validate other people’s religions (yes, he really would make a good Archbishop of Canterbury).

Boris, by contrast, is an evangelist. His pitch is that he’ll deliver Brexit come what may – no matter if he’s hated for it – and then build a consensus around the outcome. That’s what Margaret Thatcher did back in the Eighties. I remain sceptical about her policies, but watching the BBC's documentary series about Mrs T has been a reminder of her clarity, rooted in a profound faith in Britain.

Rory sounds like he’s on an apology tour. He talks about the politics of “shame” – and yes we absolutely should express disgust with what’s wrong with our country, but in Rory I can’t help but find the embers of a patrician class that sees itself as the last Englishmen, bowing out, winding down, divesting the country of the vestiges of John Bull pride, or “machismo” as he called it in the Channel 4 debate. The most telling moment of Sunday night was when the candidates were asked for their greatest weaknesses. Rory said: “Where I went to school.” Why? What’s wrong with being well educated? Only a man of immense privilege can afford the luxury of being embarrassed by Eton and Oxford. For those of us from rather more humble backgrounds, the chance to study and succeed could never be classed as a weakness. The task of modern conservatism is not to cringe at excellence. It’s to celebrate it and give others the opportunity to enjoy it.

This is hard to put into words: Conservatism isn’t articulated so much as lived. Although he won’t win, that’s why the most affecting moment in this campaign was the video of Sajid Javid visiting his mother, who threw open the door and cried: “My son! My son!” Conservatives bang on about making money, but it’s only a means to an end: to look after your family, to build a home. That’s why, it’s so often the people who have started from nothing who make the most compelling Conservatives of all.