Rory Stewart Credit: Ian Davidson / Alamy Live News

“I’m no longer trying to be Alexander the Great” – Rory Stewart gets real

The politician turned podcaster talks about turning 50, the bruising experience of frontline politics and why he craves solitude.

There is a version of ex-politician Rory Stewart’s new book that I would love to get my hands on. The original manuscript contains a passage that was apparently “very therapeutic” to write, in which Stewart made a list of “the many different ways in which Boris Johnson told lies”.  

“I found 15 different types of lie that he tells and analysed them all,” he tells me, down the line from the States, where he’s currently holidaying with his in-laws. But in the interest of not looking like too much of a sore loser, that section didn’t make the final cut. 

Stewart lost the Conservative leadership to Boris Johnson in 2019 and disappeared from the public eye for a while, but over the past two years he’s enjoyed a huge renaissance as a premier league podcaster, thanks to The Rest is Politics. The twice-weekly show, which he co-presents with former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, is regularly the country’s most listened-to podcast, and has been hailed for bringing “agreeable disagreement” back to political debate.  

Listeners will not be surprised to hear that in writing his book, Stewart relished the chance to get some Boris-bashing down on paper. Despite coming from different ends of the political spectrum, Stewart and Campbell are united in their loathing of the former prime minister, who went to Eton a few years before Stewart.  

It’s for this reason that losing the Conservative leadership race was particularly hard for Stewart to stomach: “When you’re rejected, I’m afraid it does feel a little bit like your partner leaving you. But in this case, it’s your partner leaving you for Boris Johnson, which is different – emotionally – from your partner leaving you for Jeremy Hunt, where I would have thought, ‘OK, I get it. He’s a bit older, he’s a handsome guy’,” he laughs.  

Stewart’s new book charts his decade in frontline politics, and it’s a fascinating, if sobering, read about what’s broken and “weird” about Westminster. “It’s very easy for people to feel you’re just motivated by bitterness,” accepts Stewart, “but objectively there is a lot wrong with this system, and I want to take people inside that.”  

Before becoming a Cumbrian MP in 2010, Stewart’s early career included a brief commission with the Black Watch, a stint as Harry and William’s private tutor and then two years with the Foreign Office. Then, in 2000, he went on a solo trek across Asia for more than 18 months, which he wrote about in the New York Times bestselling book The Places in Between. After the Iraq war, in 2003, he became deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces, and went on to start a charity in Afghanistan, working alongside his now wife Shoshana. As a minister and then cabinet minister, his briefs included the environment, prisons and international development, but in 2019, he was kicked out of the Conservative party over his position on Brexit – Stewart was a staunch Remainer.  

A bid to be an independent candidate for London mayor in 2021 fell apart when Covid meant the election was postponed, and he’s now president of aid charity Give Directly 

In other words – it’s been a busy few years. When we speak – and I put questions from me and Saga Exceptional readers to him – Stewart and his family have just moved back from Jordan, in the Middle East, to set up home in London. He has two young sons aged eight and six, and Stewart’s 88-year-old mum is overseeing proceedings herself.

“She’s currently getting all the beds, cupboards and clothes organised,” says Stewart. “My mother is a real inspiration on how to age with incredible energy, joyfulness and unexpectedness. I hope I have her grace and charm one day.”

You turned 50 this year, how did you feel about reaching this milestone, and getting older?

I think it’s a rather wonderful thing. My father was 50 when I was born and I was very, very close to him. He lived to be 93 and so for a lot of my life, one of my very closest relationships in the world was with a man in his seventies, eighties and early nineties. I’ve been psychologically preparing all my life for this because he was my main role model. I loved his freedom, his sense of being unbounded by convention. He had reached an age where he didn’t have to worry [about what others thought] anymore.  

I’m 50 and I guess I’m at the point of trying to work out whether I’m moving towards retirement or whether I’ve got two more big jobs in me, and asking, how do you work that out? How do you work out whether you want to be Joe Biden, president of the United States in your eighties, or whether there are other sides of your personality you want to develop more, or if you spend more time with your family. 

I think these are deeply difficult, personal things that relate to your sense of the meaning of your life, and where you find purpose. 

One of the things I find most satisfying, which sounds very strange to most people, is going on 11-day meditation retreats. One of my dreams, when my children are a bit more grown up, is to do that for 40 days.  

I also love very, very long walks. I walked for nearly 21 months alone across Asia, and I’d be very interested at some point to see if I could re-do that walk, 30 years after I first did it, and see how Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and India have changed in 30 years. 

You’re describing a crossroads between retirement and reinvention. Is that how it feels?

Yes. It seems to me that life is [made of] very distinct phases and there is a middle passage where you transition into the journey towards death. I think that happens at about this age and I think you go from heroic drives and dreams and fantasies of youth, into a more realistic appreciation of your limits. I think that can be very empowering – there is, I think, a genuine wisdom that comes with age and it’s something I never understood as a young person. I saw my father’s freedom – his anarchic tendencies – but I’m only now beginning to appreciate that age does bring wisdom. 

And are you now seeing more of that wisdom in yourself?

Yes, in fits and starts. I’m still very unwise about lots of things. I still wake up in the morning feeling tired and anxious, not quite staying on top of my work, making mistakes and feeling more guilty and stressed than I should be. But I have bursts of being able to get a degree of distance, and I’m sure there’s a form of joy and peace that comes from being able to detach. 

How has your ambition changed over the years?

When I was a teenager and in my twenties and thirties, I imagined myself as the centre of the universe. And I think I can now see myself as a much smaller part of a much bigger thing. My contribution now has to be more careful and focused and smaller – I’m no longer trying to be Alexander the Great, or the greatest man that ever lived. 

I’m trying to work out whether I’m good at running a particular charity in Africa, or whether I have it in me to write something interesting or thoughtful, and how much time I want to spend walking alone and meditating.  

A lot of my life now is occupied with children. A lot of the joy and energy I get is from teaching my six-year-old to read. That’s a really important part of what I’m doing now. 

In the book you write: “The longer I stayed in politics, the stupider and the less honourable I was becoming.” You’ve also spoken about how bad politics was for your mental health. What would have to change for you to give it another go?

I may go back, but I would have to do it in a way that [I] much more understood the costs than the first time around. It’s a pretty searing experience – it’s like going into a dragon’s cave. You’ve got to expect to be pretty burnt.  

So I think the second time around, you’d better check your armour’s pretty good, that you’re prepared to lose a couple of limbs and that you really know what you’re getting out of that cave. 

Did you only realise how bad it was for you once you were out of it?

I was very conscious of it at the time. My wife said that almost from the moment I entered I was talking of leaving. I was less aware of it than she was but she says there was barely a moment when I wasn’t talking about How can I get out of this?”. 

Do you feel relief at being away from it all?

Yes, but I’m also worried that I’m wimping out – that it’s too easy being a commentator on the sidelines, that I’m taking the lazy option… That I get to pose as this kind of honourable figure. 

I get people saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if you went back into politics,” when if I did go back into politics, the very same people would turn against me in a second. 

The book ends with your recollections of the second televised debate, in which you effectively “lost” to Boris Johnson. How did you process that defeat?

It was very difficult. It was more of a blow than I’d had previously in life. Because you are, very directly, asking voters to endorse you as a person. And in the case of my running against Boris Johnson, I felt very strongly that Boris Johnson was not a suitable prime minister – I thought he wasn’t a serious enough person to be running the country. So it felt very, very, deeply personal to me.  

So that was very disillusioning, but it’s also quite humbling. It makes you realise your limits. 

Do you worry that if politics continues in its current vein, fewer and fewer “normal” people will want or be able to get involved?

Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. People like Liz Truss are unbelievably resilient but they are also quite strange people. Their resilience and their absolute unconcerned ability to just generate radical ideas without worrying too much about whether they work or not is what landed us in that huge problem when she became prime minister. 

Rory Stewart answers your questions

Terence Forster: Why should any voter, especially one of the 26 million retirement age voters, believe anything from a politician of any flavour?  

I think it’s a good question – why should you believe anything? It’s good to be sceptical. But it’s also good to try to understand that politicians are versions of people. Sometimes worse versions but we are still people. We’re not inhuman devils who are only capable of speaking in lies. 

I think a bit of dismay with politics is important but also some empathy with the life of a politician. In a sense… voters are managers. They vote for us, they select us and if you treat the people you manage as though they’re incompetent, lying, corrupt fools then they’re probably going to behave worse than if you treated them with a certain degree of empathy and respect. 

Natasha Smith: You had the same privileged education (Eton and Oxford) as many of the politicians you’re critical of. How did you come out of those institutions differently? 

I guess it’s about other influences. I came from a family that was very much about serving in the Army, and being civil servants and GPs and academics. All my parents’ friends and all the people I worked with when I was in the Foreign Office were people with a very strong idea of what public service should be, and I think that was important for me. It was probably a bit dangerous for me too as it meant I had an unrealistic idea of politics. 

Professor Gwyneth Boswell: I am an avid listener of your podcast, which leads me to the conclusion that, with your immense international and political knowledge, and compassionate views, you are a socialist in Conservative clothing. Observations? 

I agree with the Labour Party about a lot of things. I agree with them a lot on social justice. I’m horrified by the Government’s approach to immigration, to prisons… I think we should be doing much more to address extreme poverty in Britain.   

But I’m also Conservative in that I do believe strongly in reforming public services. I don’t think the solutions to problems in education and health are to just put in money without changing fundamentally how those systems work.  

I’m also more sceptical of big government solutions than many of my colleagues in Labour. I tend to think Labour has a socialist tendency towards central planning. I tend to believe more in letting markets and communities do things.  

I’m also a traditionalist. I’m deeply proud of the Monarchy, the British Army, British history and I tend to be more “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. 

Brenda Salisbury: You stayed overnight with people during your campaign to become London mayor. Do you still get a Christmas card from any of the people you stayed with? 

Yes I do, and it’s lovely. Those connections – both as London mayoral candidate and in Cumbria [as an MP] – have been really important to me. And I think something that’s very special about politics is the privilege of being able to enter so many different homes, see so many different types of life, and make friendships with people you wouldn’t otherwise interact with. 

Fiona Cowood

Written by Fiona Cowood

Updated:

Fiona Cowood has 20 years’ experience working in senior editorial roles at leading national titles including Grazia, Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has interviewed a diverse range of remarkable people – from victims of sex trafficking in Nepal through to former Foreign Secretaries and national treasures like Tom Jones. 

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