Conservative Party leadership contender Rory Stewart, right, meets members of the public at the Underbelly Festival on Southbank on June 17 2019 in London, the UK. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/LUKE DRAY
Conservative Party leadership contender Rory Stewart, right, meets members of the public at the Underbelly Festival on Southbank on June 17 2019 in London, the UK. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/LUKE DRAY

London — He has admitted smoking opium, denied being a spy, pledged to revive the most unpopular plan in the history of Britain’s parliament, and acknowledged he has a lot to learn.

But Rory Stewart, the rank outsider in the contest to become Britain’s next leader, is suddenly winning support and giving his bigger-name rivals a reason to worry.

Officials working for three better-known contenders privately said they believed Stewart could deliver a major upset in the Conservative Party leadership votes this week. His rivals have now begun taking him seriously as a threat.

Stewart is aiming to defy the odds and make it through the voting among Tory members of parliament on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to a probable head-to-head clash with Boris Johnson, the favourite, in July.

“He’s the candidate that other candidates fear,” cabinet minister David Gauke, one of Stewart’s earliest backers, said. “If he gets a chance of being in the final two, he is the candidate who can deliver a big surprise.”

Britain is in the middle of a political crisis after Theresa May was forced to quit as prime minister over her failure to complete the country’s exit from the EU. The result of the contest will decide what kind of Brexit the UK pursues and shape the country’s political dynamics and economic outlook for years.

Johnson is promising a decisive break from the EU by the October 31 deadline, even without a deal. But Stewart insists the only option for delivering on the 2016 referendum is to ensure May’s unpopular withdrawal agreement — which was defeated three times in Parliament, including once by a record margin — succeeds.

His manifesto is for compromise. He wants to root government in the centre-ground of politics, and to be humble enough to accept his limits and tell the truth.

Face-to-face politics

Stewart, the international development secretary, started his campaign with a typically eccentric decision. Instead of trying to win over the electorate that matters in the first stages of the contest — the 313 Tory MPs who will whittle down the crowded field of 10 candidates to two — he walked high streets around Britain to speak directly to voters.

“Theoretically this should be catastrophic for me,” Stewart, 46, told journalists Monday. “Oddly what seems to be happening is that people are refreshed.”

Stewart has criticised the “machismo” of opponents — especially Johnson — who say they can get changes to the Brexit agreement from Brussels, when the EU said it will not renegotiate. He has said pursuing a no-deal Brexit is pointless because parliament won’t allow it. And he has vowed to bring down Johnson if he tries to override MPs to force through an exit without a deal.

‘The undeliverable’

The tactic is paying off so far. After scraping through the first round of voting among Tory MPs on Thursday in last place, Stewart picked up new backers, including de-facto deputy prime minister David Lidington, culture minister Margot James, and former cabinet minister Caroline Spelman.

Bookmakers have moved him up from long-shot to a genuine contender to make the final two. One of his backers in parliament, Antoinette Sandbach, said Stewart has electoral appeal that reaches beyond the Tory core voters.

“Rory recognizes that Boris Johnson is promising the undeliverable and says so,” she said. “People like his straight-talking.”

Before May even announced her resignation as prime minister, Stewart said he would like her job. After she quit — and before he had been in his first cabinet post for a month — he took to touring the country, posting shaky videos of his interactions with the public on social media under the hashtag #RoryWalks. In one of them, he even spoke Dari with an Afghan immigrant.

‘Be brave’

That’s a legacy of Stewart’s exotic past. The son of a spy, he spent a short period in the army between his schooling at Eton College, and Oxford University — the same educational background as Johnson. After graduating, he served in the foreign service in Indonesia and Montenegro. On Monday, he denied to journalists rumors that he had been a spy himself.

After the Iraq war, Stewart served as deputy governor of a province in the country, before taking time out to walk across Asia. This included a month spent crossing Afghanistan that he turned into a book, The Places in Between, which won several prizes and made the New York Times best-seller list. It was during the Iranian portion of the walk that he smoked opium, he admitted to the Daily Telegraph.

On Tuesday, Stewart was forced to issue a denial when asked if he was a spy. In an interview with BBC Radio, he said the law prevents intelligence offers revealing their identity and puts a similar prohibition on newspapers. “I definitely would say I served my country,” he said. “And if somebody asked me whether I was a spy I would say ‘no’.”

Stewart entered parliament in 2010, and has represented the English seat of Penrith and the Border — neighbouring Scotland — since then. He won just 19 votes in Thursday’s ballot, and needs at least 33 to avoid being knocked out on Tuesday.

Asked if he was confident he will get the votes he needs, Stewart replied: “If they do what they say.”

He recognised the danger. “I mean I have to stare at literally every single one of them in the eye and look into their souls” as they vote “and say ‘be brave’.” Asked if he trusted his fellow MPs, Stewart replied: “In the voting lobbies? Nah.”