Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 10th June 2019

I HOPE Rory Stewart does not become the next leader of the strife-torn Conservative Party and thus our next Prime Minister. The reason? He’s far too decent and principled for the party in its present manifestation.

Candidates are lining up to succeed Theresa May when she steps down in a few weeks’ time, but given the current state of politics in this country, and the general public’s view of politicians which varies from the frustrated, the dismissive and the bitterly disappointed to the downright angry, you have to wonder what’s the attraction of a job that Prime Ministers rarely leave with their reputations enhanced.

A senior politician once told me the only difference between Tories and Labour is that the Tories stab their leaders in the back whereas Labour have the good grace to stab theirs from the front.

It’s into this lion’s den of squabbling arrogance that Rory Stewart has thrown in his lot. You can still get good odds from your bookie if you fancy backing the Penrith and Border MP for No 10 Downing Street. But Stewart has emerged as a serious candidate. One of the few that, to quote political writer Ian Birrell, “seems a grown-up who has wandered into the noisy kindergarten of Brexit politics”.

Birrell agrees that having a compelling back story doesn’t make a convincing leader, but there is “something refreshing about Stewart’s directness and openness compared with the usual dissembling”.

I can’t be accused of bias. I have heard Stewart speaking both live and in the Commons. But I’ve never met the chap, who could become my next Member of Parliament under the reorganisation of voting boundaries, and can only make my judgement based on the qualities he brings to politics which are so far removed in their intelligence and integrity from the charlatans who populate the halls of Westminster.

Rory has even attracted the attention of the lovely Jemima Goldsmith who, quite stricken it appears, gushed the other day that “he is serious, principled, clever, diligent, thorough, thoughtful and has vital diplomatic skills … and is much tougher than he looks”. If he ever needs a PR woman, Jemima appears ready and willing.

On his election as MP for these parts, he visited 200 villages in his constituency to get to know it better. “I learn by walking around the place,” he proclaimed at the time. He’s been back on his travels, becoming a minor social media sensation with selfies attracting hundreds of thousands of views as he treads the streets of towns and cities across England to listen to the public.

Stewart is by no means the first politician to pound his patch and get his face known to a wider public. One American congressman undertook a 1,000-mile walk and credited it with winning him an election. Another, who walked 273 miles from Carolina to Washington DC to bring to attention the plight of rural hospitals, was following a long tradition of footpath pounding.

It’s a man of the people thing. As one professor of political science put it, “it’s saying ‘I’m one of you’.” Rory’s rambles are probably a great deal more sensible than Theresa’s dodgy dancing, but as with all good ideas in politics there’s a potential downside.

In the US there’s a euphemism, “hiking the Appalachians”, which is much beloved of political commentators. It stems from the absence for six weeks of a state governor whose lackeys told the media he was on a walking holiday. It transpired he was with his Argentine mistress in Buenos Aires all the time. Ever since, any political figure up to hanky-panky has risked the hiking quip.

Compared to Rory Stewart’s past trekking through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, a bit of public schmoozing is small beer. It would just be a pity, in my humble view, if such an excellent politician, with the negotiating and diplomatic skills many of his colleagues so patently lack, were to be handed the keys to No 10 in the present climate, a post that seems to reduce leaders to tearful wrecks.

Stewart may make a first rate Prime Minister one day. He’d certainly make a brilliant Foreign Secretary. But is this the day? Is this the wisest moment to take on a divided party and a divided nation? Nothing in politics surprises any more so we’ll just have to wait and see how this fascinating yet depressing scenario plays out.

BEWARE A PYRRHIC VICTORY

A SOBERING thought for those, including Rory Stewart, on the burgeoning list of leadership candidates. You might be elected and go on to set an unenviable new record as the shortest-serving Prime Minister, beating record holder George Canning’s April to August, 1827, stint.

Mrs May has narrowly overtaken Gordon Brown who survived for two years and 319 days. The problems for her successor will have only just begun once the leadership contest is decided. Forming a government from a divided bunch of MPs, working out who are your enemies — I suspect politicians have few genuine friends in the business — negotiating a new deal with the obstreperous DUP, getting a Queen’s Speech passed to enable laws to be debated and approved, and that’s besides Farage, Brexit and the reopening of negotiations with the EU, if it’ll even listen.

Dragging Parliament out of paralysis. Big egos. Dealing with enemies within. What a way to run a country. To Rory Stewart and other candidates I say one thing — beware of what you wish for.

MISSING YOU, DANNY BOY

COMING along the A66 alongside Bassenthwaite one day last week I spied a group of around a dozen tourists disembarked from their transport and standing in a lay-by from where you get a fantastic view across the lake towards Skiddaw.

Were they simply entranced by the scenery? Or osprey spotters maybe? Lifting their eyes to the hills? No, each and every one of them was gazing down at the screen on their mobile phone. Even in the midst of the Lake District looking its finest on this sunny afternoon, their addiction was stronger.

They were probably members of the Twitterati, studying the latest gems from publicity-hungry celebrities, like what they had for lunch, or pals pontificating in 140 characters on matters of great moment about which they understand precious little.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to Saturday mornings and the loss of one of my favourite radio programmes, the one hosted by Danny Baker. Danny is an outstanding broadcaster and his Saturday show on Five Live was wont to produce some memorable moments, like the time a chap rang up to say his dad had turned up at his wedding wearing ex-President Jimmy Carter’s suit.

Baker sparked off some way-out conversations and this time had asked if listeners had stories about wearing other people’s clothes. It turned out the father worked at Madame Tussaud’s waxworks and borrowed the gear from Carter’s dummy, finding it a perfect fit.

Danny, like many before him guilty of an inappropriate posting on Twitter and Facebook, was taken off air after putting a picture of a monkey on his site as part of a comment on the new royal baby’s arrival. The first thing that comes into your head isn’t always the wisest to circulate to a potential audience of millions.

I don’t do Twitter. There are too many strange and nasty individuals ranting anonymously online. One wrong word and it’s full on mob attack, and once you’ve put something out there it could be dredged up years later.

Danny Baker may be what one of his pals called a “blabbermouth”. But he’s no racist. The quick to take offence brigade soon had his BBC bosses hopping around on hot coals and now my Saturday mornings, and those of thousands of listeners, are stripped of his offbeat sense of humour as a consequence.

Jeremy Kyle I can do without. But Danny’s a real miss.

QUEEN’S SERVICE

REPORTING on court cases you hear some right old excuses, but the claim by a speeding German driver that a Holy Spirit had intervened on his behalf took some swallowing. When the picture from the speed camera was shown, his identity in the driver’s seat was obscured by the wings of a passing bird in flight. He got off.

Unlike the chap who appeared before magistrates in Keswick in a smart blazer and regimental tie, claiming that his minor driving misdemeanour should be dismissed as he was “on Queen’s service” at the time.

The bench, clerk and solicitors were all baffled and the defendant steadfastly refused to say what his “Queen’s service” comprised. Top secret, he maintained. They found him guilty and I believe he paid the fine without further ado.