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Rory Stewart: 'The Conservative Party is being punished for Boris Johnson and Liz Truss'

Rory Stewart has endorsed Big Issue founder Lord John Bird's tireless campaigning to eradicate poverty

Rory Stewart at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, 2017. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As the latest general election polls show the Labour Party on track to beat their 1997 landslide, former Conservative cabinet minister and The Rest is Politics podcast co-host Rory Stewart says the Tories brought the calamity on themselves by electing Boris Johnson and Liz Truss as leaders.

“I feel the Conservative Party is getting its just deserts,” he told Big Issue. “It’s ultimately getting punished for the profound cynicism involved in endorsing Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. There was no happy ending to that. It was about putting power above seriousness, principle and policy. And so in a sense, they deserve what’s happening.”

Rory Stewart was the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border from 2010 to 2019, and between 2015 and 2019 served as a minister in four departments of the British government, including heading up the prison service. He was secretary of state for international development from May to July 2019, but quit politics after being beaten in the Conservative leadership election by Boris Johnson.

Though he has little sympathy for his former colleagues, who are predicted to lose as many as 225 seats in the upcoming election, Stewart expressed concern that an incoming Labour government may be unable to change the trajectory of UK politics.

“The question is: is Labour going to rise to the challenge? Are they going to be able to really be more serious? Or is this lack of seriousness embedded now so deeply in the British political game – and media and social media and party politics – that they’re not going to be able to find a way of being honest and brave?”

Since leaving politics, Rory Stewart has written a bestselling memoir, Politics on the Edge, which details his frustrations at the “shameful state” to which parliament has fallen. He also launched The Rest Is Politics podcast with Alastair Campbell. But some of his most impactful work has been away from party politics.

From 2022 to 2023, Stewart was the president of GiveDirectly – a charity that helps families living in extreme poverty in the developing world by making unconditional cash transfers to them via mobile phone. He believes the next government should do something very similar to tackle “shameful” extreme poverty in the UK.

“The evidence is: the major reason people are poor, is they don’t have money. And if you give them money, they’re less poor,” he said. “Most people in poverty actually spend the money reasonably sensibly.

“The thing that saddens me most about the Labour platform, as we can read it now, is the lack of care for the most vulnerable. Fundamentally, what is shameful about Britain? Not the stuff that we usually talk about. It’s the way that we neglect prisoners, the homeless, the extreme poor. That’s the problem in British society.”

Rory Stewart endorsed Big Issue founder Lord John Bird’s laser focus on eradicating poverty, the central pillar of the Big Issue’s Blueprint for Change.

“Extreme poverty is the biggest stain in our society,” he said, “and that should be our number one focus. And it’s a focus that needs full effort, full focus and as [Lord Bird] says, a very long-term approach. But not just a long-term approach – a short-term approach as well.

“I would get very frustrated in prisons where everyone was like, ‘Well, the only way of dealing with this is addressing child poverty.’ And I was like, that’s fine, but there are people in prison now having a horrible time. So by all means, address child poverty but also clean up this prison. Stop people getting violently assaulted. Don’t let the long term be an excuse for not tackling what you can today.”

At the moment, Rory Stewart said, the government is neither putting in place long term solutions nor dealing with the immediate concerns because as a nation we “fundamentally don’t care” about people living in extreme poverty.

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

“People are not getting out of bed in the morning thinking, this is horrible. We’re telling ourselves other sorts of stories,” he said.

“There’s a lot of things that are wrong. I’d like to really think about how we reform the NHS. There’s no bit of public life I don’t look at and say OK, we could definitely make this better. And a serious government would try to make all these things better.

“But the poverty bit is the shameful bit. That’s the bit that’s unforgivable, because we can absolutely afford for very little money, comparatively, to make the lives of the extreme poor immeasurably better. Starting today.

“And actually, it’s much easier to do that than reform the NHS, or even sort out education. You could do things immediately for people who are homeless, immediately for people in prison, for very little money.”

Rory Stewart was speaking to Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, in which he also discussed how he’s coped with “the failure of [his] political career”; his relationship with his father, a former senior spy; and the bad poetry he wrote as a lovelorn teen. Read the full interview in the magazine soon.

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For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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