Rory Stewart gave the best speech so far at a leadership launch. He spoke in a circus tent between the London Eye and the railway running in to Charing Cross, the rumble of commuter trains helping his performance to sound connected to everyday life.
Ken Clarke and Sir Nicholas Soames were among the ten or so Conservative MPs who came along to support him. Gillian Keegan said a few words of introduction. Philip Lee and Guto Bebb were standing at the back.
A much larger number of the general public had come to hear him. The tent was full, the small, circular stage surrounded by an audience which was mixed by sex and age, though at a guess almost entirely university educated. I found myself between a man on his way to a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a woman on maternity leave from a senior role in the City.
Stewart reminded me a bit of David Cameron, speaking without notes at his launch in 2005 and managing to convey a greater sense of possibility than David Davis had been able to achieve earlier the same morning.
It is difficult to make compromise sound attractive. Stewart managed to do so. He said he wanted “an energy of prudence – a very unfashionable word – I’ve come here because I believe in prudence.”
The last front-rank politician to declare his belief in prudence was Gordon Brown. He did so with Calvinistic utilitarianism – to him, it was “prudence with a purpose” – but quite soon he came off the rails and started splurging money about.
There is plenty of religious feeling in Stewart, but more Anglican in tone. He uses words like “love” and “humility” without embarrassment.
Whatever he sets out to do in politics is infused with moral and spiritual purpose. He mentioned Gladstone with approval, and Thatcher too when asked about her.
Like her, he respects tradition, and individual rights: “I’m more of a Conservative than anybody else in the race.”
Here is a man who wants to inspire us to do better. He spoke of “the energy of shame” – the way we should feel that our prisons are “not good enough”, so we must do something about them.
He referred to an 88-year-old woman who is looking after a 93-year-old man who is doubly incontinent, and said this is not good enough. That produced warm approval from his audience.
And he said we need “the energy of seriousness”. To him, the advocates of no deal are not serious. With the smile one might direct at a group of recalcitrant children who will have to be helped to see the error of their ways, he said they were telling a “fairy tale”, and giving way to “negativism”.
When asked what he thinks about the new attempt in the Commons to rule out either No Deal or prorogation, he said he had not read the details, but supports the initiative: “I am entirely against no deal and entirely against prorogation.”
There is an early decision he will have to take. If he votes against those things, he will be out of the Government and out of the race.
He gave a charming account of his late, tartan-clad father, still angry, when they revisited Normandy on a D-Day anniversary, at the foolhardy tactics adopted by his commanding officer, which saw the whole company killed or wounded.
Stewart started by speaking, without notes, from behind the kind of lectern one might find at a party conference. But quite soon he said “I’m going to give up on the podium. I can’t be bothered with the podium.”
From then on he strolled about in front of the podium, or leant on it, almost ostentatiously relaxed.
But not so relaxed he had forgotten the need to stop. He took some questions – half a dozen from the press, half a dozen from the audience – and then with commendable speed wound up.
This candidate entered Parliament in 2010. “He’s come out of his shell,” a journalist who has covered him over that time said after the meeting.
The City woman on maternity leave said he will appeal to people who are fed up with the “incredibly acrimonious” tone of the Brexit debate.
At most events of this kind, the audience have been brought in merely to applaud. With Stewart, one felt a conversation was taking place, a relationship was being formed.
He will not win this leadership contest, but he has become the star of it.