“I didn’t want to be PM”: We go on a walk (not a kip) with Rory Stewart

Despite bowing out of Westminster, Stewart remains one of Britain’s best-known politicians. Peter Ross joins him on a walk through London as he bids to become the City Mayor

Rory Stewart hunkers down on Highgate Hill to get a better look at the cat. Part of its left ear is missing, it is surrounded by railings, and is made of stone. This small monument marks the spot where, according to legend, Dick Whittington – a poor boy sick of the city and returning to the country – turned again for London, having heard in the tolling of the Bow bells the prophecy that he would be lord mayor. Stewart – who is not and has never been a poor boy, but does at least own a cat – hopes to become mayor of London at the election on May 7.

The Whittington Stone, therefore, seems a good place from which to start our walk. Stewart, who once trekked 300 miles across Afghanistan in winter, is well wrapped up in that semi-famous blue raincoat he wears on the campaign trail. Had he succeeded in becoming prime minister, as he tried last summer, it might have become as talismanic as Thatcher’s handbag, Wilson’s pipe.

He has been walking within each of the city’s 32 boroughs, talking to people about their lives, their London, and how each might be made better, spending nights as a guest in the homes of community activists, and those living in poverty. He had looked into the possibility of a night at a homeless hostel, but was told that this would mean one fewer bed for someone in need. The social media campaign driving all this – #ComeKipWithMe – has resulted in some gentle mockery, but Stewart is sincere. “These have been some of the very best months of my life,” he says. “I’m exhausted, but so much happier than when I was an MP. I feel much more useful.”

He insists that only through encounters with real life can he develop policies that work. Much of his pitch has focused on London’s knife problem, promising to resign if violent crime has not been reduced within two years of his election. Could he give the same promise with regard to reducing the numbers of rough sleepers? “Yes, I think I probably could.” (In the week following our meeting, he will pledge to halve the numbers of rough sleepers in London from almost 9,000 during his first term in office.)

Could Stewart make rough sleeping a resigning issue? “Yes, I probably could.”

We carry on up Highgate Hill and turn into Waterlow Park. At 47, Stewart is small, but not delicate. He has always dressed a little oddly. Boyhood was batik shirts; as a teenager at Eton in the 1980s he favoured drainpipe jeans and winkle pickers; he is no stranger to a kilt and was once known for his sporran, a moth-eaten otter. He has the slightly raddled gauntness of an earlier generation of rock star. One thinks of the young Keith Richards. In the future, perhaps, a bandana awaits.

Earlier, I had asked about a striking gold ring on his left pinky. “It’s from Constantinople and it’s about 1,000 years old,” he replied. “My wife gave it to me as a wedding ring. It’s a Christian ring from the very late Roman Empire.”

Does he have a religious faith? “I am a Christian. I go to church on Sunday with my boys. But I’m a very inarticulate, muddled type of Christian.” His parents had hoped he might become an Anglican priest. “My father, because he was a very worldly man, wanted me to be Archbishop of Canterbury.”

Brian Stewart had been an officer in the Black Watch, leading an anti-tank platoon in Normandy, and later became deputy head of MI6. He died in 2015, aged 93, at Broich, the family home near Crieff in Perthshire. Stewart tried to resuscitate him, breaking two ribs in doing so, and later calmed himself, in the first dark hours of grief, by listening to a recording of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Father and son had been extremely close, and so I ask how he has been affected by the loss. “I feel deep gratitude for him,” Stewart replies. “I didn’t feel particularly distraught. He was so good at both communicating love and signalling his own death that, in a way, I’d been working through and preparing for saying goodbye. So I had none of that sense that there were things that you wish you’d discussed. I absolutely felt I’d touched every corner and aspect of his personality, and got everything that we possibly could out of that relationship, and it was time for him to go.”

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Stewart's stints with the Army and the Foreign Office led to rumours of a role with MI6

Rory Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973. Despite (or perhaps because of) being born overseas, and having lived all around the world, he is an intensely Scottish Scot. He plays the bagpipes, knows how to sword dance and shows me a picture on his phone of his two sons – aged five and two – looking cute in their kilts.

He has many identities – “I’m a bifurcated thing” – and one of those is Londoner. He lives in the same house in South Kensington that he lived in as a child, walks his elder boy to the same school by the same route. “My grandmother was born in the street where I live now. In 1911, they put straw down on the street so the horses’ hooves wouldn’t wake the baby.” One of his ancestors, Sir John Wroth, was lord mayor of London in 1360.

Stewart believes his internationalism rather than his inheritance makes him a typical Londoner. He speaks 10 languages. “At school, I did French, Chinese, Latin, Greek. Then the Foreign Office taught me Indonesian and Serbo-Croat. Then I did, on the walk, Farsi, Urdu and Nepali. Oh, and I did Russian GCSE.”

That mention of the Foreign Office is a reminder that Stewart, who has been both soldier and diplomat, is often said to have been a spy. Pointless to ask about this, though, because he always denies it, and would have to do so even if it were true. It’s a win-win. He gets the glamour either way.

Before us now are the gates to Highgate Cemetery. Would he care for a turn in the graveyard? “Yes, that would be lovely.”

We follow the signs for the grave of Karl Marx, although the great tomb does not seem to interest him. Stewart, running for mayor as an independent, sees himself as pragmatic rather than ideological; neither left nor right, a man who fixes problems.

I ask about his wife Shoshana. They met in Kabul in 2006 and married in 2012. Stewart had set up a charity, Turquoise Mountain, with the aim of restoring historic buildings and reviving Afghan craft traditions; Shoshana, an American, joined in the early days as a volunteer and is now the CEO.

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Stewart tells a story to illustrate how he feels about his wife. It was March, 2014, when she received word – at two in the morning – that Taliban militants were attacking the Kabul Serena Hotel where some Turquoise Mountain workers were staying. She jumped in her car, Stewart says, and drove to the police line in the hope that she could get them out.

“Our staff had hidden in the bathroom and there were gunmen running through the corridors shooting people,” he says. Shoshana spoke on the phone to her staff as they hid. Nine people were killed, as well as the four attackers, but the Turquoise Mountain team survived. “I saw her values so clearly,” Stewart recalls. “Her generosity, her courage, her honesty, her determination to get things done. I think a lot of our relationship is founded in watching each other in this wonderful but quite tough environment over three, four years in a country we both love.”

We walk on. His eye is caught by the headstone of Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols impresario, and in particular by the inscription: Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success. “That’s very good,” he murmurs. “I like that.”

McLaren’s words might be applied to Stewart’s political career. Having been a successful writer and adventurer, having been the deputy governor of two provinces in Iraq during the post-war occupation, and then an academic at Harvard University, Stewart was tipped as a future foreign secretary or prime minister before he had even been elected as the Conservative member for Penrith and the Border. Yet he found his time in Parliament frustrating, feeling that MPs actually have little power to improve people’s lives.

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With his seat in Westminster now gone, Stewart reckons he can do more to help people as Mayor than as MP

Rebelling against the government on Lords reform meant he was blacklisted from becoming a junior minister during his first five years in office. Even when he started getting bigger jobs, he wasn’t entirely happy. He enjoyed and still values his stint as prisons minister; his time as undersecretary for state at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, less so. A Commons speech in which he spoke for 13 minutes on the subject of hedgehogs, bringing in references to Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Beatrix Potter, is often celebrated as charming whimsy. Looked at from another angle, one sees a certain desperation: a man with a surfeit of intellectual energy bored out of his brains.

“I think politics is very damaging for mind and body and soul,” he says. “I’m a rougher, more worn, cracked version of myself than I was 10 years ago.”

Leaving the cemetery, it is a short walk downhill to Hampstead Heath. The photographer stops him for some pictures – and a question. “Is it true,” he asks, “that Brad Pitt bought the rights to your life story?”

“Yes,” Stewart replies. “This is one of the great defining clichés of my early life. I was a kind of minor celebrity, but when I became a politician it all stopped.”

The option has now lapsed, which is for the best. A Rory Stewart movie is unnecessary; he already acts as though he is the lead character in a script he is writing. He has a tendency, in a crisis, to make the situation more theatrical; to turn it into something that, even as it is happening, is already becoming a story. At his father’s funeral, he made the mourners dance a reel to the bagpipes on the Broich lawn. Or consider the moment, in 2004, when his compound in Iraq came under sustained mortar fire. Calling the staff into his office, with mattresses barricading windows, he handed out oatcakes, poured wine, and put on some music. Schubert’s blithe song The Trout rang out as shells fell.

“I feel that those sorts of moments – and there have been maybe half a dozen in my life – take on an almost supernatural quality. The cone of time and place narrows down.” He gives several examples, including being with his father as he died, and delivering his elder son according to the phone instructions of an emergency operator, Shoshana’s labour having come on too quickly to get to hospital. “I feel an incredible sense of rightness.”

I didn’t want to be prime minister. I wanted to really push myself. I wanted to make my mind as sharp and embracing as it could be. I wanted to push my body to the limit

So, at serious risk of being killed in Iraq, he wasn’t frightened. The feeling was: at last, a trial by fire. “Yeah. As if providence, or something, has offered me a moment to do what I was born to do.”

We have, by this time, climbed to the top of Parliament Hill with its great city vista. He points out Westminster. Many expect him to return to that place.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going back to Parliament. I think that’s very unlikely. I ran for prime minister a bit accidentally because I was cross about Boris’s position on Brexit, and I was cross about the direction the party was going, and I felt nobody was standing up for that. But I want to be mayor in a way that I didn’t really want to be prime minister.”

So it’s definitely not in his future? He shakes his head. “I’m not a very good politician, basically.”

We sit on a bench to take in the view. I mention a portrait I had seen recently. It was commissioned by Eton, when he was 17, as a way of marking his leaving. In some ways the picture was a bet on his future: this boy will go places, and he has, but not perhaps those the school had in mind.

He stares straight out of the canvas, unsmiling, with an intense gaze. What was he like back then? “Extremely confident.” And what did he want? He begins his reply in the negative.

“I didn’t want to make money,” he says. “I didn’t want to be prime minister. I wanted to really push myself. I wanted to make my mind as sharp and embracing as it could be. I wanted to push my body to the limit. I wanted to show what it could mean to be a human. I wanted to do things that people hadn’t done, whether that was walk across continents, or…” He trails off, resumes. “The figures that I admired and wanted to emulate would have been people like Tolstoy.

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“And I think that person, looking out of that picture, looking at me now 30 years later, would have felt the slackness and bruises. But he probably wouldn’t have expected to still be alive. I expected that I would die in my late 20s, early 30s. I assumed that I would have been killed in a war, or that I would have achieved amazing things in my 20s and that would have been the end of it.”

This did not seem an unattractive idea. The last decade, however, has felt like a “second life” during which he has moved beyond those adolescent fantasies. Perhaps that’s what marriage and bereavement and parenthood do: they beat reality into even the most romantic soul. Still, I can’t quite shake the feeling that there remains a little part of him ever ready to be seduced by the grand gesture and dying fall.

“I was in a plane flying over Afghanistan in 2007 and we hit some bad turbulence,” he recalls, looking out at the London sky. “I remember thinking, ‘If this plane crashes I’ll be perfectly happy. I’m doing something I love, I believe in his, if I die now I’d feel completely at peace.’

“But if I had died when I was the Defra minister” – this said with a sort of mini-shudder – “ah, that would have been depressing. I just hoped I could live long enough that that wasn’t the final chapter in my life.”

Images: Orlando Gili