(CN) — Think of Rory Stewart as British Prime Minister Theresa May’s little torpedo cast into the Tory fight over who will replace her, Great Britain’s second female prime minister after Margaret Thatcher. The prime minister is backing a toothy and petite 46-year-old Scottish member of Parliament, former diplomat and her Cabinet’s Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, as her best successor — and her best shot at stopping Boris Johnson, an ally of President Donald Trump and one of her chief opponents, from taking over at No. 10 Downing Street.
May voted for Stewart last week in the first round of balloting in the Tories’ excruciating leadership race. Since then, Stewart’s standing has grown and he’s become a headline feature on television and chat shows: a bright-eyed policy wonk with a bit of the roguish look of Mick Jagger, with his broad lips and bony face.
He has a distinguished track record as a diplomat, intelligence officer and scholar. He is also a New York Times best-selling author for “The Places in Between,” a book describing a solo walking trek he took in 2002 across war-torn Afghanistan.
So far, it looks like May picked a possible, if still long-shot, winner in this brutal Tory derby that has seen its Oxford University-educated party standard-bearers acknowledge past drug use, among other faults.
In a refreshing twist, Stewart has become, according to British newspapers and pundits, a likely candidate to make it to the final round to face off with Johnson, the former mayor of London and an Oscar Wilde-like celebrity of British politics.
With his brazen clownish stunts, Johnson has pushed his way to the forefront of a seriously weakened but still dominant Tory party that has in the past decade found itself pushed further to the right.
Johnson, a former liberal, mirrors that shift with his advocating a nationalist Trump-like politics. So far, he is winning the leadership contest by a mile, but he is known for blunders and outrageous remarks, both of which have already come to bite him after his first televised debate Tuesday on BBC.
Johnson, though, is a skillful politician and a proven election winner. After leaving office as mayor of London, where he cultivated an image of a bicycle-loving progressive, he pivoted when he went back to Parliament and joined the next big thing in Tory politics: a push to hold a referendum on leaving the EU.
He quickly earned himself the position of the leading voice of Brexiteers — a group of hard-right Tories eager to close the door on the EU and its tough rules and laws.
In the 2016 referendum, Johnson boldly championed Brexit and talked up how much better off Britain would be if it were outside of the EU and on its own. In his high-profile and well-funded tours of Britain by bus, Johnson often deployed outright lies. He and others in the Leave campaign now face legal questions for allegedly conducting the election in an unfair manner.
But on June 23, 2016, the Brexiteers achieved the impossible: Their side won, by collecting 52% of the votes.
It was a stunning turn of events that set into action a series of other stunning developments, among them the election of Trump in the U.S. elections later that year.
For many, then, a Johnson prime ministry is their worst nightmare: a well-documented liar in Downing Street leading Britain over the Brexit cliff off into who knows where.
Still, Johnson has the backing of at least half of his party and he summons deep sympathy across the United Kingdom and even across party lines. His prestige was built up over decades of scurrilous newspaper columns he wrote, attacking the European Union and frequent appearances on television shows promoting his books and ideas.
In the second round of balloting, Johnson picked up the votes of 126 of the 313 Tory members of Parliament, or MPs. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt got 46 votes, Environment Secretary Michael Gove 41, Stewart 37, Home Secretary Sajid Javid 33 and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab 30. As the loser, Raab was forced out of the race.
Although Stewart is still at the back of the field, he was the only candidate to see his vote tally improve significantly from the first round of balloting.
In a third round Wednesday, the remaining candidates will seek to capture the votes of Tories who supported Raab. The final two candidates are expected to be chosen by Thursday, in time for the weekend break from Parliament.
What’s set Stewart apart is that he is the only candidate left who rejects leaving the EU without a deal.
His message is simple in its brutality: Legally, Great Britain can leave the European Union only with a deal — and that deal is the one that May painstakingly developed with her counterparts in the EU for two years.
Parliament has voted to reject leaving without a deal, so the only way for a no-deal Brexit to take place would be under extraordinary circumstances. No-deal supporters say shutting down Parliament — a process known as proroguing — may be required to ensure Britain leaves the EU without a deal. That would be a constitutional crisis of enormous gravity.
Stewart believes the only way for Britain to legally leave the EU is to sign the deal, and continue to trade closely with Europe, while at the same time retire from the EU’s institutions.
In signing the deal, he says, Britain would be able to gain control over immigration, which was the core issue behind the Brexit vote. As a member of the EU, Britain has seen large numbers of EU citizens come into the country in search of work.
Johnson, on the other hand, advocates ditching the EU deal altogether and leaving the bloc on Oct. 31, the next deadline for Britain to decide what it will do.
In Johnson’s view, Britain can leave the EU, set its own trade tariffs, and prosper by reaching a free-trade agreement with the United States.
But economists warn that Johnson’s plan is riddled with problems and could cause irreparable harm to the British economy and its stature in the world.
Stewart, who was assigned his Cabinet position in May, came into the Tory leadership race as an outsider, but in a matter of days, he’s become a relief for Brexit-fearing Britons who see in him someone who might be able to bring all the warring sides together.
Stewart says that the country can heal if a citizens assembly is set up to allow nonpoliticians to have more say over how Brexit takes place.
What may be most convincing about Stewart is his earnestness, and for appearing to be the only Tory contender who has seriously considered the implications of Brexit in its fine details.
He’s challenged the hard-core Brexiteers he’s running against. In the first debate on Sunday, which Johnson skipped, Stewart called for an end to “all this machismo” about Britain leaving the EU without a deal and being better off for it.
In all likelihood, a no-deal Brexit would be even more complicated than what’s already happened to Britain in this agonizing drama over the terms of its exit from the EU.
Under a no-deal Brexit, everything would be put into doubt. Can British airplanes continue flying into European airports? Who will do the food inspections at border crossings? What will happen to farmers in Northern Ireland who daily cross the border to deliver sheep to slaughterhouses in Ireland?
At its heart, the Brexit mess is a reflection of the deep divisions with the Tory party.
In Parliament, the Tories could easily have corralled enough votes to pass May’s deal if the party had behaved like it typically does: Backing its prime minister.
But Brexit is no ordinary matter for the Tories, a party that has for decades resisted Britain’s gradual blending into the European framework.
Since the end of World War II, and the end of its global empire, British foreign policy at its core was to work more closely with European nations. Under this view, Britain has to rely on forging stronger bonds with its European partners to keep its standing in a world where rising superpowers, foremost China and America, were taking charge.
The next step in the contest will be decided by grassroots Tory members, made up largely of older and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, most of them in England, since the Tories’ presence elsewhere in the U.K. has shrunk, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have evolved their own party systems. A new prime minister is expected to be announced on July 22.
In this next phase, Stewart stands a good chance of winning a lot of hearts — not least thanks to his military and diplomatic background.
Stewart has a remarkable life story, albeit one that sprang from Britain’s elite class. Like five of the six candidates, Stewart did all the necessary steps for joining the Tory ranks: He was sent to exclusive Eton College, where one-third of Britain’s prime ministers have hailed from, then went on to Oxford University.
He served in the British armed forces as an officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. He then was placed into a dizzying array of foreign service jobs around the world, from quelling violence in Kosovo to brokering peace among Iraqi tribes. Domestically, in Britain, he has held responsibilities to investigate flooding and overcrowding in prisons.
There’s something genuinely British about him: He speaks in a rapid-fire way, and his body language is urgent, jerky; he appears thoughtful, learned and an example of Britain’s finest institutions.
Adding intrigue, he may have served as a British spy.
His father, Brian Stewart, held some of the highest positions in the British Intelligence Service and was a decorated World War II hero. Rory Stewart followed in his father’s footsteps when he embarked on his career in the military and then foreign service.
This week, the Daily Telegraph reported, using unnamed sources, that Stewart served with the MI6 during his tenure as a diplomat. Stewart denied being a spy when he was performing diplomatic services, but added that he would be legally bound to neither confirm nor deny that he had acted as a spy.
If it comes down to Johnson and Stewart duking it out, it will be an vivid study in contrasts.
The scholarly Stewart is the opposite of Johnson, a party-loving and shambolic character with a vivid family story of his own. Unlike Stewart, whose public record appears to be spotless, the Johnson’s biography reads like a journal of a rapscallion who’s dazzled London’s high society with his humor and wit. He’s ended up in the gossip pages due to extramarital affairs and written columns in which he used offensive racist epithets. He’s admitted taking cocaine and smoking marijuana.
The men seem to represent two sides of the Tory party.
Stewart is appealing to its urbane establishment, the “party of business,” while Johnson is a favorite among landed gentry, big business and lower-income voters.
The oddsmakers think Johnson has the better chance of coming out ahead. But it still seems like it’s anyone’s race to win and become the next prime minister to shake Queen Elizabeth II’s hand.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)