Rory Stewart says he no longer "fantasises" about being PM – but don't rule him out
Senior Tories predict that as many as 20 MPs would throw their hat into the ring in a leadership contest. It would be a very brave punter who bet against Rory Stewart being one of them, writes Kevin Schofield
Rory Stewart is an ambitious man.
He became an MP in 2010 and is now on his fourth ministerial job, having also found time to chair the Defence Select Committee for a year. These are not the actions of someone who does not have their eye on high office.
So when he says that he no longer "fantasises" about being Prime Minister – as he told me in an interview for this week's House magazine – it's worth taking it with a large helping of salt. In fact, on a couple of occasions during our chat, his mask slipped a little to give a hint towards his true intentions.
He mentioned his "manifesto" at one point, and when talking about his vision for the UK, he said: "It doesn't matter whether you're developing Afghanistan or trying to lead Britain, you have to begin from a position of affection and love." Who may he have in mind, we are entitled to wonder.
All of this matters because a Tory leadership election could be just around the corner. It's now accepted by everyone – apart from Theresa May – that her Brexit deal will be voted down, probably fairly convincingly, on 11 December.
One Cabinet minister predicts that were that to happen, Labour would table a motion of no confidence in the government the very next day. In the ensuing chaos, the Prime Minister could fall, plunging the Conservatives into an immediate leadership election.
Another scenario posited by a senior Brexiteer is that immediately after the vote, the PM pledges to go back to Brussels and try to get a better deal. That could buy her some time. But were she to insist that no further negotiation was possible, the Brexiteer suggests, that much-promised flood of confidence letters would then be sent to 1922 Committee chair, Sir Graham Brady, triggering a formal vote by Tory MPs. Given that this would happen on the back of a Commons humiliation, there is a much better chance than before that she would lose it.
Senior Conservatives predict that as many as 20 MPs would throw their hat into the ring in the ensuing leadership contest. It would be a very brave punter who bet against Rory Stewart being one of them.
To that end, it is fascinating that he has decided to pin his colours so firmly to the mast of May's Brexit deal. The calculation would appear to be that in the final analysis, Tory members value loyalty over political purity.
Stewart is also proud to proclaim himself a moderate at a time of increasing political polarisation. He says: "A lot of my values are centrist, but I'm a Conservative because I believe in history and tradition and our society and our values." Again, these are sentiments which should win him a fair hearing among the Conservative selectorate.
He may no longer fantasise about getting the keys to No10, but Rory Stewart clearly believes he is ready should the opportunity arise.