Rory Stewart: Tribal politics is stopping MPs from tackling the big issues in this country

Rory Stewart poses with a young Labour supporter in Hartlepool. Pic: Frank Reid
Rory Stewart poses with a young Labour supporter in Hartlepool. Pic: Frank Reid
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In the shadow of the war memorial in the former shipbuilding town of Hartlepool, ex-Tory Minister Rory Stewart is chatting amiably with a young Labour supporter and posing for a selfie.

The Labour supporter, a 20-year-old politics student called Lauren, talks effusively about the encounter afterwards, describing the MP as a "fantastic talent" who is "interested in people's experiences and why they feel the way they do".

A few minutes later the town's Labour MP Mike Hill wanders over to talk to Mr Stewart, praising his efforts to find out "what Hartlepool is actually about". "It is full of great people," he tells reporters afterwards. "Ten years of austerity have had a great effect on this town but it is not on its knees."

The meetings with those holding opposing political views on a blustery Thursday afternoon are largely typical as Mr Stewart, a former International Development Secretary and Prisons Minister, travels around the North East and Scotland finding out more about the challenges they face.

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Tory MP Rory Stewart pictured on a visit to Hartlepool. Pic: Frank Reid

Tory MP Rory Stewart pictured on a visit to Hartlepool. Pic: Frank Reid

Following his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win the Tory leadership race earlier this summer with a campaign based on moderation and compromise, the Oxford-educated former diplomat went through a period of gloomy introspection.

His latest walk-about, an attempt to divine the public mood and the extent to which he had misunderstood it, brings him to a coastal northern town which has had a Labour MP since the constituency was formed in 1974 and saw 70 per cent of the population vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.

And despite the willingness of some to engage with him, he laments the "tribal" nature of politics which prevents proper debate.

People might suggest he leaves Westminster to come and visit a food bank, he says, "but my experience is that when you do that people are actually quite reluctant to let you see it because they are quite angry with the Tories so they are quite reluctant to let you".

Rory Stewart meets Hartlepool MP Mike Hill. Pic: Frank Reid

Rory Stewart meets Hartlepool MP Mike Hill. Pic: Frank Reid

He adds: "For me it is really important that our politicians get a chance to really learn and study things and sometimes tribal politics gets in the way of that.

"It is a real problem for politicians I think, because to be good members of Parliament we need to understand this country, but this country is so big and so varied.

"If you take Northern Ireland, which I did two months ago, that is a whole lifetime's work in itself. And I suppose Country Durham is a whole lifetime's work to understand, and that's before you get onto Yorkshire or anywhere else.

"I try to do what I can, fill my days as hard as I can, so I have done bits with hospitals, bits with heroin addicts, bits with the homeless, bits with the police in Durham, a food bank here, free school meals in Manchester tomorrow, but you are aware that you can never do much more than scratch the surface.

"Public policy needs to be based on real knowledge. It needs to get away from these big words, austerity with a capital A, into really detailed questions of where has the investment gone, where shall we move it, because there is sometimes money available but sometimes a question of where the money goes and how it is best spent."

His point about tribalism is underlined later in the day when he posts a video on Twitter about his visit to a Hartlepool food bank, describing it as "probably one of the most troubling things I have seen in the last week travelling around the North East".

A lot of the problems he saw are "sparked by universal credit", he says, but also housing provision and the immense challenge of turning round the lives of people with addictions and mental health problems. "It's very difficult to find out what the solutions are".

The video sparked an immediate backlash from those pointing out the contribution that Tory austerity policies have made to their plight. One Twitter user wrote: "Dear Rory we have known about the rise of foodbanks for years. It’s the fault of the Tory gov & welfare reform."

In a later video post the MP for for Penrith and The Border in Cumbria reflects that because of the history of the Conservatives in the North East, "people don't for understandable reasons want to hear from me." He adds: "I am struggling to find the right language to have a conversation."

During his food bank visit, Mr Stewart says a lot of the "very poor people" he met were in favour of a no-deal Brexit. "They were very supportive of Boris pushing ahead and I was trying to argue against them", he says.

"I am against a no-deal Brexit, I think it's unnecessary and damaging. This is about tribal politics, a lot of Labour MPs, like me, particularly somewhere like this where more than 70 per cent of people voted for Brexit, agree that we should deliver Brexit but want a moderate Brexit deal.

"But when I was trying to sell the Prime Minister's Brexit agreement none of them would vote for it. I warned everyone at the time that if you don't vote for this you are going to have no deal."

The man who beat him to the Tory leadership, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, used the first days of his premiership to make eye-catching pledges to northern voters, notably on high speed rail between Leeds and Manchester.

Though some have decried the focus on connections between the North's two biggest cities, Mr Stewart says doing so will benefit those areas further out and urges Ministers to get the project started as quickly as possible.

"You do in the modern world, I'm afraid, need a critical mass," he says. "One of the odd hings about the industrial revolution was you were able to get real innovation in towns with just a few tens of thousands or small hundreds of thousands of people.

"Today it seems as though a lot of really innovative business and tech thrive in places where you get millions of people together. That's what Leeds and Manchester can provide."

Reflecting on the PM's promises, he says: "The big question is where the investment goes and whether we are smart enough in thinking about it.

"It is something I have really experienced in Cumbria a lot, which is that it is difficult working out how you target investment, even if you get money.

"A big fund has been set up for coastal towns which places like Hartlepool will benefit from but I don't think anybody has yet really got the recipe for what it really takes to bring back to Hartlepool what it had, at the height of the industrial revolution it was incredibly, vibrant, technology-driven, innovative.

"That's the real challenge. You can bring in investment, you can do particular projects and create particular centres and provide support for people but what we really need here is to get that sense of hope and optimism and innovation and that's much more difficult to do."