For the most part, the contest to replace Theresa May as the leader of the Conservative Party—and as Britain’s Prime Minister—has been crowded and dull. From the moment that May announced her resignation, last month, the field, which at one point included thirteen Members of Parliament, has been dominated by Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary. Whether because they are afraid of Johnson, or because the population is dangerously bored by Brexit, other candidates have struggled to make themselves heard. The exception has been Rory Stewart, the country’s thin, rather strange secretary of state for international development, who has spent the past several weeks walking around Britain, engaging strangers in conversation, uploading videos, and directly questioning Johnson’s ability to govern. “Is this the person you want writing the instruction to the nuclear submarines?” Stewart has asked. “Is this the man that you want embodying our nation?” On June 13th, in the first round of voting among Conservative M.P.s, Stewart received nineteen votes, placing seventh among eight candidates who progressed. In the second round, which took place on Tuesday, Stewart rose to fourth, almost doubling his support. At the end of this week, the top two candidates will seek the votes of the Party’s hundred and sixty thousand members. “I am feeling energized,” Stewart told reporters before Tuesday’s vote. He said that there was more to come.
When Stewart was first elected to the House of Commons, nine years ago, he liked to sit on the floor of the chamber, even when there were seats available. In a Profile of Stewart for The New Yorker, in 2010, Ian Parker described this as “an ambitious form of humility.” He is a particular soul. Like Johnson, he is a product of both Eton and Balliol College, at the University of Oxford. But whereas Johnson craves fame, Stewart hankers for something more like the abyss. In his speeches, Stewart tends to reach past ordinary political objectives, in search of primal emotions, such as love and fear. “We need to feel shame. Our policies must begin from a place of shame,” Stewart said last week, at his official campaign launch, which was held in a circus tent on the south bank of the Thames. Unlike the other Tory candidates, who have promised various combinations of crowd-pleasing tax cuts and an effortless Brexit to excite the Party base, Stewart has offered prudence and a measure of pain. His solution to leaving the European Union is to put May’s battered withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons for a fourth time. If that fails, Stewart wants to summon a “citizens’ assembly” to figure out what to do next. He is passionate about care for the elderly. One of his favorite subjects is realism. “You vote for me only on the basis that you want compromise,” he says.
To many non-Conservatives, who believe that Johnson, in particular, is not very interested in realism, Stewart’s candidacy has been bracing and exciting to watch. At the same time, it has been hard to believe that he will survive in the race for long. The Tories pride themselves on sensible, ruthless successions. Before Stewart became a politician, he was best known for walking across Afghanistan, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, in 2001. Between 2003 and 2008, he helped govern parts of southern Iraq and then ran an arts-and-crafts charity in Kabul. You get the impression that he is happiest sitting on the floor in rooms full of men, talking into the night, overcoming insuperable differences, and then going outside to look at the stars. On Tuesday, at a small outdoor meeting in London, Stewart was questioned by a man wanting to know what he plans to do about violence and mental-health problems among young people. The man was carrying a cup of beer. “You lot are doing all this Boris Johnson, all political shit,” he said. “I don’t know what is going on.” Stewart got down from the stage and stood in front of the heckler, nodding. Then they awkwardly embraced.
For a giddy moment, it felt like something was happening. On Monday evening, David Lidington, a Cabinet Office minister who is May’s de-facto deputy, endorsed Stewart as the next Prime Minister. (May herself has declined to say whom she is supporting.) During the second round of voting, the following day, Stewart’s support jumped to thirty-seven M.P.s, putting him only nine votes behind Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary.
An hour and a half later, Stewart and the other four M.P.s remaining in the race took part in a televised debate on the BBC, in which they took questions from viewers around the U.K. and talked over each other. Stewart, who was seated on the far left, seemed jumpy and frustrated from the start. While the other candidates sat up obediently on white bar stools, Stewart stretched his legs down to the floor. After a few minutes, he took off his tie. During a question about the Irish border—which has been the bane of the Brexit negotiations—Stewart talked about a sheep farmer he met in Enniskillen. While his rivals argued, Stewart tipped his head back, put his hands in his pockets, and stared at the ceiling. “Rory, you’re completely out of touch,” James, a Brexit Party voter from Oxford, said, when Stewart declined to join the rest in offering tax cuts. There were moments when the other four candidates, who included Michael Gove, the pro-Brexit environment secretary, and Sajid Javid, the ambitious home secretary, all looked at Stewart as if he had wandered in from another TV show. When it came to education, Stewart talked about A.I. and robotics. “We haven’t grasped that,” he mused. The BBC format was choppy and annoying. Nobody shone. But Stewart made the mistake of appearing to be above it all. “I don’t believe in making impossible promises on television,” he said.
After the debate, Stewart acknowledged that he had been out of sorts. “I thought maybe, if I took my tie off, we could get back to a bit of reality,” he said. He described the BBC’s debate set as “an alternate reality. . . . It was a strange rotating stage, as though it would go spinning off like some asteroid.” Again, it was jarring, and sort of thrilling, to hear a political candidate describe the weirdness of the process as he experienced it. But it seemed unlikely to endear him to the Conservative Party at large. The following morning, there were rumors in Westminster that Stewart was in talks with Gove, preparing for his exit from the contest. Stewart put out a video on Facebook denying this. “I am not folding. I am not going anywhere. I’m in this to win,” Stewart said. The next round of voting took place in the afternoon. This time, the candidate finishing last would be eliminated from the race. Stewart and Javid were seen as the most vulnerable.
Just after 6 P.M., the results came in. Johnson’s vote was up again, to a hundred and forty-three M.P.s, almost half of the Conservatives in Parliament. Hunt was narrowly in second place. But Stewart’s wave had broken. He had lost ten supporters overnight, and came last. “I didn’t get enough MPs to believe today – but they will,” Stewart tweeted, adding a smiley face. “#RoryWalksOn.”