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The rise and fall of Rory Stewart: Was it tactical voting or an 'awful' debate that derailed Tory leadership bid?

Rory Stewart was forced to pull out of the leadership race after 10 MPs deserted him
Credit: SWNS

When Rory Stewart unexpectedly started trending on Twitter last week, a Conservative colleague took the International Development Secretary aside to gently break the news that he was never going to be Prime Minister.

Citing Michael Heseltine as a respected elder statesman, the MP told the 46-year-old maverick politician: “I’m sorry Rory, you’re just going to have to settle for being remembered as the best Prime Minister we never had.”

Rewind to Tuesday night’s second ballot and things were looking extremely positive for the dark horse candidate once dubbed ‘Florence of Belgravia’ by those more sceptical of the reluctant spy’s talents than the 37 MPs who backed him as leader.

Having almost doubled his fanbase from his 19 supporters in the first round, the momentum appeared to be firmly behind the old Etonian ‘anti establishment’ politician who once tutored Princes William and Harry and counts Prince Charles as a personal friend.

An aggressive social media campaign, featuring hand held videos of Rory meeting members of the public, combined with more media appearances than his rivals combined, attracted heavyweight backers including Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington and Justice Secretary David Gauke as the bookies began slashing the odds on him making it into the final two.

But a week is a long time in politics and as the last 24 hours have proved, an MP's descent from hero to zero can be brutal.

As Mr Stewart’s acolytes dissected his sudden and somewhat unexpected demise on Wednesday night, could tactical voting have brought down the man many accuse of spouting Liberal Democrat policies?

While his MP backers were desperately trying to spin that his tie-less performance in Tuesday night’s chaotic leadership debate was superior to his rivals, by his own admission he found the format “frustrating” and “was not as rigorous as a might have been.”

Having removed his neckwear due to the heat, appeared fidgety on his stool and at times uncomfortable in front of the camera, critics suggested that nomadic Mr Stewart had reached peak Rory… and careered off the edge.

As one uncharitable veteran Tory put it: “Rory completely bombed. He was absolutely awful. What we were left with after that debate was a bit of roadkill that was still twitching but in need of being put out of its misery.”

Or as a Boris backer added: “What the debate showed was Rory’s limitations. It’s been a fun novelty act but I don’t think people in the party are seriously considering him as a Prime Minister.”

Not least after the former Labour supporter declared: “We do not need more tax cuts” - anathema to the average Conservative MP, let alone Tory voter.

Then came suggestions of a pact with Michael Gove, which seemingly proved to be the final nail in the coffin of Mr Stewart’s prime ministerial ambitions.

Telling the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that he had begun ‘talks’ with the Environment Secretary, he spoke of ‘combining forces’ in order to defeat Mr Johnson, adding: "We would find a common position [on Brexit]... we would have to agree to compromise."

MPs were left scratching their heads as to how a staunch remainer who has consistently insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be negotiated could possibly form a coalition with a former Vote Leave frontman who has promised to do just that.

With comparisons already being made with John Redwood’s misjudged decision to support Ken Clarke against William Hague in 1997, Mr Stewart’s team did its best to play down any suggestion of a pact - and was forced to deny rumours the pair had held a secret meeting in Mr Gove’s office on Monday after they were photographed chatting animatedly together that afternoon.

One supporter told the Telegraph on Wednesday lunchtime: “Michael’s people are pushing the pact idea because they’re getting a bit desperate.”

Pointing out the rivals are in neighbouring offices on upper committee corridor, the MP insisted: “There have been lots of meetings - they meet all the time. This isn’t about stopping Boris. - it’s about providing Tory members with a choice.”

But that’s clearly not how Mr Johnson’s campaign saw it - which brings us to the issue of tactical voting.

With catty comments already being made in the Commons tearoom that Rory had “started believing his own hype” - concern was growing at his increasingly desperate attempts to win more support - including texting ousted Mr Raab’s supporters until 3.15am on Wednesday morning.

It came after eyebrows had been raised after he had tried to pick off MPs who had previously supported Sajid Javid, telling them in a text following Tuesday's second ballot, when the home secretary polled four fewer votes on 33: “I know that was not the result you might have been hoping for, and I understand you might want a bit of space to think, but you will be aware that the vote is tomorrow. So forgive unseemly haste. I'd be proud to have you on my team, and I would love to chat any time that you're free. Very best wishes, Rory."

Credit: Getty

Bragging that he had picked up leave supporters including "some positive responses" from Mr Raab’s fanbase, he told Radio 4 on Wednesday morning: "I am not playing numbers here but I had a couple this morning. The reason for that is like me we have to get this done.”

Mr Stewart’s team was also briefing journalists that he had been winning support from “the most surprising of quarters.”

Yet just hours later, Mr Stewart had taken a different tack - accusing Mr Johnson’s ‘chief whip’ Gavin Williamson of ‘lending’ votes to Mr Javid in a bid to push him out of the final four - a claim vehemently denied by the Boris backers. “It’s not true,” said one of the former foreign secretary’s supporters. “Some MPs may have lent friends votes for strategic purposes but the Boris campaign wants him to have the biggest mandate possible.” Wednesday night’s arithmetic does appear to support Mr Stewart’s theory, with Mr Javid gaining five votes while he lost 10.

But there have also been suggestions that leavers may have only switched to Rory in the second round in a bid to force Mr Raab out of the race as Boris’s main Brexiteer rival.

Whatever the truth, Mr Stewart claims the campaign has “given me a new faith in politics and a belief in our country,” adding: “I didn’t get enough MPs to believe today - but they will.”

He may have been reduced to an “also ran” but the man famed for his love of walking does not appear to have given up his dream of one day marching on Downing Street.