Eye-opening view of world of UK politics

Rory Stewart


In the first chapter of Nick Hornby’s best-selling memoir of the agonies — and occasional ecstasies — of being an Arsenal fan, Fever Pitch, the young Hornby describes his fascination watching the adults at his first Highbury match, and his sudden realisation how much all of them seemed to hate being there.

It is a sensation which often comes to mind when reading failed Tory leadership aspirant Rory Stewart’s memoir of his decade in British politics: he did not very much want to become a politician and seemed to have a utterly miserable time for most of it.

But become an MP he did, bringing to an end a career of sporadic success running aid missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite his modesty he ended up being rather good at it, and at one stage was the bookie’s second pick for leadership of the Conservative Party, behind runaway favourite Boris Johnson.

Of course, Stewart was unsuccessful, which lends an air of imminent doom to Politics On the Edge — but do not dismiss this as the feeble mewlings of an also-ran in the race to the top of the greasy pole.

For a start, Stewart was an established author before entering politics and he really can write. Only he knows how honest and warts-and-all Politics On the Edge is, but it certainly rings true — any constituency MP in this country will immediately empathise with his selection battle and ongoing struggles to bring the concerns of his remote northern voters to the attention of relevant ministers.

The book made plenty of headlines in Britain for its, at times, devastating portraits of some of that country’s best-known politicians — David Cameron and Boris Johnson certainly do not come out of this well, although the much-maligned Theresa May does rather better and negative reviews of her term in office may well be due a revision.

There are certainly plenty of pithy and pungent adjectives, and the book is all the better for it, but — a common complaint of all politicians — personalities should not, and do not, dominate policies.

Politics On the Edge is an at times devastating, at times dispiriting, exploration of how exactly policies change and new programmes are implemented — or not, as Stewart found many times, to his chagrin.

But somehow, like the aforementioned Hornby, a sometimes deeply depressed Stewart keeps the faith and even enjoys the occasional success. His chapter on prison reform is electrifying reading.

By its end, you, too, may end up hating politics for the fact it chewed up and spat out a committed and capable man like Stewart and left Britain with Johnson in charge.

Alternatively, it might give you hope that despite the airbrushed emptiness of a David Cameron, the political system can still turn up a maverick like Rory Stewart.

Whichever camp you opt for, Politics On the Edge is one of the finest insider’s view of politics I’ve read and is highly recommended.

Mike Houlahan is the Otago Daily Times political editor.