Rory Stewart’s plan for Brexit

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Almost every Conservative party leadership contest features a contender who emerges as a surprise star: someone who challenges the established candidates and transforms the debate. In 2005 it was David Cameron, in 1990 it was John Major. Almost no one predicted that this year it would be Rory Stewart.

The international development secretary — better known abroad for his past career as an author, diplomat and academic — entered the race with scant support from fellow MPs and limited government experience, having joined the cabinet only last month. But Mr Stewart is defining the second round of voting on Tuesday, especially among his centrist rivals hoping to end up in the final shortlist of two against Boris Johnson, the frontrunner.

The extent of his momentum was underscored on Monday when David Lidington, de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, announced he was supporting Mr Stewart. Few initially expected him to make much of an impact in the race.

“Before the contest began, there were worries about the fragmentation of the Eurosceptic vote. In fact, it’s turned out to be a splitting of the Remain vote — Rory has ruined it for both Saj and Jeremy,” said an official on a rival leadership campaign, referring to home secretary Sajid Javid and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt.

What does Mr Stewart think about Brexit? He made his way in cabinet by becoming an ardent advocate for Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement, more so than any other minister. Soon after the deal was announced, he headed straight for the TV and radio studios to try to sell it, including using a made-up statistic that 80 per cent of Britons backed the deal, admitting it came from his imagination.

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Unlike the other leadership contenders, such as frontrunner Mr Johnson, he is firmly set against leaving the EU without the deal. Mr Stewart has routinely argued that a no-deal Brexit is “undeliverable” in the current parliament and would be “catastrophic” for the British economy. As prime minister, he would opt for a different course.

He has also said that leaving on October 31 is going to be “very tough”, similarly to environment secretary Michael Gove. And while all of the other candidates have promised to renegotiate the May Brexit deal, he has pledged to try once again to get it through parliament, arguing there is scant evidence that the EU would offer a new better deal (he may be right on this front).

This is obviously easier to talk about than enact. Mr Stewart hopes that the “fresh” mandate of a new prime minister could persuade more Tories to back the deal. He is also hopeful of reaching out to Labour MPs in Leave-voting seats, the very same MPs Mrs May failed to win over in her three attempts at passing a deal. His best hope is that his political skills are better than those of Mrs May and he would be able to somehow persuade MPs that the withdrawal agreement is the best way out of the bloc.

If that doesn’t work, Mr Stewart is pledging to hold citizens’ assemblies to bring ordinary Britons into the process, as advocated by former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. This idea hasn’t been tested in British politics before and there is little evidence that it could deliver a clearer result than parliament.

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If Mr Stewart survives the next round of voting on Tuesday, he will face tough questions on exactly how he will resolve Brexit. Very few Brexiters are supporting his candidacy, and he has a long way to go on persuading his colleagues and party activists that he is able to deliver on the referendum result.

Further reading

Labour has only one realistic option on Brexit — back remain (Paul Mason, The Guardian)

A pact with the Brexit Party would be an admission the Tories are dead (Ruth Davidson, The Telegraph)

How will the leadership candidates solve the Irish border question? (Robert Peston, Spectator/ITV)

Hard numbers

Pound slides as no-deal Brexit chances rise under Boris Johnson. 



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