There are elections coming up, again, and in Croydon this week was the newest candidate to be London Mayor. RORY KELLY went to hear what Rory Stewart had to offer
Rory Stewart, the former Conservative government minister and now an independent candidate for Mayor of London, staged one of his early campaign events in Croydon this week and managed to share a stage with a senior figure from a controversial church some of whose members are under investigation for fraud, charity law offences and facing allegations of abuse.
“You can see his passion for London, you can see his passion for change, you can see his passion for people,” was the introduction for Stewart offered by Daniel Ogoloma.
Ogoloma has had plenty of practice lately of trying to put a positive spin on something that is not, perhaps, everything it claims to be.
Over the past couple of months Ogoloma has been the spokesperson for SPACNation, now notorious as the “church of bling”. On their behalf, he has been issuing barely credible denials over a series of disturbing allegations about the organisation, which was the subject of an adjournment debate in the House of Commons last night.
Given Stewart’s somewhat late decision to enter the Mayoral race – the Conservative Party is already lumbered with a candidate, the bungling Shaun Bailey – tempting controversy by teaming up with SPACNation probably wasn’t the smartest move by a politician who is usually noted for his intelligence, if not his obvious connections with the capital.
Just a couple of months ago, Stewart was one of the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Unable to support Boris Johnson’s Brexit policies, Stewart opted not to stand for re-election to parliament last month.
After almost a decade representing the people of Penrith and the Borders – about as far from London as you can get and still be in England – the Hong Kong-born Old Etonian, who once served in an elite Scottish regiment before going to Oxford University and working overseas for the Foreign Office, announced he wanted to be Mayor of London.
Clearly, if Stewart has a “passion for London”, he has managed to keep it very well hidden. Until recently.
“This is a man who wants to change London, who wants to understand and listen,” Ogoloma said, his own presence on the platform at Jury’s Inn demonstrating that Stewart clearly hadn’t listened to the many voices of former SPACNation members complaining of being exploited, financially or otherwise.
Or perhaps Stewart didn’t understand the dire allegations laid out in the BBC Panorama documentary just last month.
Stewart’s lack of a real political base in London is underlined, unintentionally, by these London Speaks events which – less than four months before London election day – are intended to show the candidate listening to concerns from all over the city to develop a policy platform for his mayoral campaign. Because he has entered the Mayoral race without a policy platform.
Stewart spoke for about 20 minutes, talking about his vision of London as “almost infinite… essentially 700 towns stuck together”. The notion of London as a conurbation made up of a group of villages is so trite, he might have got it straight from a GCSE textbook.
Stewart says that he wants to use London Speaks events and its accompanying smartphone app to record what people in London are concerned about and distil these insights into “40 really great ideas for London”. He says it will be released at the beginning of March.
Stewart’s chances of unseating Labour’s Sadiq Khan as London Mayor seem remote in the extreme, though as a high-profile Tory, he might take enough votes from Bailey to deny the official Conservative candidate third place on May 7. He certainly appears to be relishing the radicalism that his independent status affords him, no longer yoked by a party whip.
“The real business of politics is practical,” he declared proudly.
Because there is essentially no Stewart policy platform made this a rather strange event. The audience was invited to ask questions or share their wisdom, in response to which Stewart would offer a series of thoughts, usually without coming down on either side of the issue.
Asked if he supported Mayor Khan’s choice to not renew London’s Uber licence, Stewart managed to straddle both sides of the issue.
The Mayor’s “decision is fine”, Stewart offered, as long as it is in the interest of safety.
“The way in which the market works best is if you have very clear regulations and if you enforce those regulations,” was followed by praise for the “very, very valuable employment” Uber provides for its drivers (few, if any, of whom are actually employed by Uber).
Stewart’s conclusion was, “Yes let’s sort out safety…that is the central issue, not trying to pick winners amongst us.”
Presumably, we’ll all find out what Stewart actually thinks about Uber when he releases those 40 “really great ideas”.
Similarly, in response to a question about planning and the local economy in Croydon, Stewart, somewhat proudly, gave no response at all.
In the most Croydon-centric question of the night, a resident asked Stewart how he felt about Croydon Council building housing on council land for private sale.
“Thank you,” said the immaculately mannered Stewart. “We should talk more. I need to learn more about Croydon.”
Charming though this may seem for some, it left the audience to wonder exactly what kind of candidate Stewart really is.
On the question of housing generally, Stewart was a little more detailed, floating the possibility of the Mayor’s office borrowing money through a development corporation and building homes in London. “We could be building 250,000 houses and owning those 250,000 houses,” he said, apparently dumping 40 years’ worth of Conservative Party policy.
I asked Stewart what his strategy would be for implementing such plans in areas like Croydon South, where any development is usually met with hostility. He suggested that the same strategy, of listening and learning, could help skirt such problems. “I want a world in which the planners are there in a room for three days, with the public, drawing it on a board, arguing about the design, taking the ideas,” Stewart said.
Then I asked if he had an opinion on building on Green Belt, a possibility raised by Croydon Council to help meet its target of building 6,000 more homes. “I believe in protecting green field spaces, unless there are very, very exceptional situations.”
Having spent an hour listening, and mercurial Stewart was off, presumably to listen to the people of another neighbourhood while carefully offering no firm commitments to what he might offer in return for their votes for him as Mayor.
By May, he might have a very clear view of what their opinion is of him.
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You have to ask yourself how a candidate with no political base or active supporters in London is supposed to be taken seriously?
Clearly Stewart believes the arts of marketing and public relations overcome such a basic deficiency as he fishes for the print and digital media to pick up his campaign to provide him with cheap and positive press coverage.
He has still not informed his electorate if he is a member of the Conservative Party and has no policies or clear strategy to deal with the desperate problems faced by London. His naivety is even amplified by becoming involved with SPAC Nation figures about which he simply doesn’t have a clue. He exemplifies the poverty of the current batch of politicians in dealing with the problems now faced.