Rory Stewart: Tory leadership contender unveils proposal to break Brexit deadlock

The International Development Secretary took to the streets of London with a camera-phone to chat with all-comers

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 28 May 2019 16:25 BST
Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart self shooting video

Conservative leadership hopeful Rory Stewart has said he wants to set up a Citizens’ Assembly to thrash out a Brexit compromise, with the Archbishop of Canterbury as mediator.

The International Development Secretary said he would like to include “literally everyone” in the talks, and said he was ready to reach out to figures as diverse as European Research Group hardliner Mark Francois, Unite union boss Len McCluskey and “if necessary” Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.

The proposal came as Stewart took to the streets of London armed with nothing but a smartphone and a selfie-stick to answer questions from all-comers.

Announcing his presence in Barking, Kew Gardens and Lewisham Market through posts on Twitter, the cabinet minister said he would be in each area for the next few hours and invited anyone who wanted to meet him to come along.

The initiative saw him chatting with fishmongers on a market stall and conversing with an Afghan man in the Dari language, which he learnt while trekking across the country in the months after 9/11.

Mr Stewart is viewed as an outsider in the race to succeed Theresa May, and is in a small minority of contenders who would rule out a no-deal Brexit, which he describes as “damaging … deeply divisive … and very difficult to get through Parliament”.

But he has won the backing of veteran backbencher Sir Nicholas Soames, who said: “We need to come together as a party, and we need someone who can sort out Brexit, and restore pride, hope and confidence to Britain. That person is Rory Stewart.”

He rejected suggestions that he was a “suicide bomber” candidate aiming to clear the way for environment secretary Michael, saying: “I’m not running tactically – I am running on principle and because I believe we can unify this country and make it a much better place.”

Speaking to the Evening Standard in Barking, Mr Stewart made clear he would seek a more flexible approach to Brexit talks as PM than that of Ms May, who stuck rigorously to a set of “red lines” on UK withdrawal from EU institutions.

The 46-year-old former soldier and diplomat, who served as a senior official in Iraq following the 2003 war, said: “The thing I’ve learnt negotiating, whether with warring factions in Iraq or with mini-wars in Afghanistan is that you have to be nimble. This is not a game of red lines or rigidity, you have got to keep trying and be imaginative, and you have to reach out.”

Confirming he is ready to involve Mr Farage in an Emmanuel Macron-style Citizens’ Assembly process to find a Brexit compromise, he said: “I am the last person he will expect to hear from and that is a powerful position to come from.”

Mr Stewart, who backed Remain in the 2016 referendum and has been one of the most persistent public defenders of Theresa May’s withdrawal deal, said he chose Barking for a visit because of its high proportion of Leave voters and Lewisham because it had been Labour since the 1980s.

He plans to visit Wigan and Scotland in the coming days.

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