How Roaming Rory Rattled the Tories

As the Tory leadership race kicked into high gear this week, one contender adopted the most insurgent of communication strategies: while every other candidate talked, this one walked.

“Rory Stewart”, opined one journalist “is living one of the more extraordinary lives on record”. Born in Hong Kong in 1973, his father was a diplomat who would later become the director of the British Secret Service agency MI6. On completion of military service, Stewart studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford whilst moonlighting as a private tutor to Princes William and Harry. In 2002, just months after the American invasion, Stewart walked solo across northern Afghanistan in the middle of winter in search of the country’s most threatened historical sights. In the following years, he served as a coalition official in Iraq, a diplomat in Montenegro and, prior to his election as an MP in 2010, was picked by Esquire magazine as one of Britain’s most influential people.

Stewarts influence is partly due to his extraordinary communication skills. He once made a rousing speech to Parliament about Hedgehogs, a response to the motion that the animal be adopted as Britain’s national symbol. Described by Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing as "one of the best speeches I have ever heard in this House", it also contained an eerily prescient caution about Brexit and national identity - “Do we want to have as our national symbol an animal which when confronted with danger rolls over into a little ball and puts its spikes up?”

But, unlike most politicians, Stewart’s flair as a communicator transcends mere rhetoric. In 2016 he walked the length and breadth of his constituency, a remote border area separating England from Scotland. During the 1000 kilometer odyssey he connected first hand with his constituents, many of whom were of Scottish extraction. “The Scots have always had a proud tradition as walkers” he told Berkeley’s Harry Kreisler, “it was only fitting to connect with them in this way.''

As walking became a shorthand for Stewart’s public identity it wasn’t too surprising that when the time came to run as a rank outsider for the Tory leadership race in 2019, he adopted the same strategy. Under the hashtag #rorywalks, Stewart immersed courageously in the welter of public opinion surrounding Brexit. By debating and discussing issues at a series of street level, pop-up meetings, he not only drew large crowds but also won the backing of several senior cabinet ministers. The Twitter fuelled campaign was highly successful, propelling Stewart into the final five of the 11 initial candidates. Here are four communication lessons for us all:

It was simple and unexpected

Rarely (if ever) have Britons known a politician to engage so transparently with them on their own turf. The insurgent approach not only helped romance the public but attracted greater support from his peers than the pundits first envisaged

It was concrete, credible and authentic

Whether in train, tube or bus stations; on the pavement outside the local super or in a local cafe, Stewart extended an open invitation to discuss and debate the issues. This built not only his ethos as servant-minded politician; it also gave him a street-eye view of how the average Brit saw British politics in general and Brexit in particular. It all helped shape the arguments he would later use in the televised debates that were to follow

It told a story

As the campaign gained momentum one got a sense not just of Stewart’s physical journey but of his mental and emotional one too. One discerned a growing empathy as well as an escalating urgency to his mission

Sadly Stewart bowed out from the race on Wednesday having gotten further than many initially thought. “Rory Stewart is out” screamed a headline in the Independent, “The Tories have killed off the truth teller”. A Tweet from Sajid Javid, another Tory hopeful, also attested to the effectiveness of his campaign. “Thank you @RoryStewartUK for the positive impact you have had on this campaign. You’ve injected it with real humility, authenticity, and pragmatism”.

Late Friday afternoon, Rory Stewart stepped onto the street outside Parliament. As he did so, his wife and campaign director Shoshanna Clark posted another video to Twitter. In it, he removed his tie, thanked his followers for their support and invited them to join him for a drink at a pub called the Underbelly on London’s South Bank. Nearly a 1000 people showed up. “It’s the start of a movement”, he would later Tweet, adding a new hashtag. #rorywalkson

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