Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart (Photo by Niall Carson - Pool/Getty Images)

Centrist Dadocracy

Rory Stewart thinks only he can save the nation

Artillery Row

The Centrist Dads appear triumphant. They can relax during the next General Election campaign, in the knowledge that victory is assured — both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are from their ranks. To pass the time, they have a new podcast to listen to: a “safe space” of mushy establishment thinking from George Osborne and Ed Balls, without any risk of alternative opinions being granted a serious hearing. “When people want to criticise our show, they say we’re ‘centrist dads’,” writes Osborne in The Spectator. “It’s meant as an insult, apparently. I’m not sure why. Do we want the world run by extremist bachelors?”

The more subversive element amongst the CDs have a hero in Rory Stewart, the former Tory MP who has written an entertaining account of his accidental Parliamentary career. Like many of his former colleagues on the Conservative benches, he is not really a Conservative. That was precisely the quality that made him the favoured candidate of leftist broadcasters when he stood for the Conservative leadership a decade later.

Stewart just was attracted to the role of being an MP — or really a Minister, as he felt being a mere backbencher would be somewhat beneath him. He had voted Labour in the past but had gone off Tony Blair. Stewart had a meeting in 2009 with Paddy Ashdown, who encouraged him but added: “For God’s sake don’t become a Lib Dem; the point is to be a minister.”

Thus he became a Conservative — conveniently finding that under David Cameron’s leadership, having no “baggage” of previous involvement was a positive advantage. Stewart was fast-tracked through to the A list and duly elected in 2010.

He can’t bring himself to challenge the centrist dad consensus

If he travelled light so far as Party allegiance was concerned, his greatest disdain was those he regarded as “ideological”. His alternative approach was to investigate each matter personally before coming up with the answer. Thus as the MP for Penrith and the Border, the largest constituency in England, he tried to walk everywhere looking out for voters with spare rooms who could put him up. When he became Prisons Minister, he asked if he could spend a night in the cells. Later his abortive campaign to be Mayor of London featured his request to be allowed to “kip on your sofa” whilst touring the capital.

All very endearing. It is commendable that he should be open-minded and keen to be well-informed. It might also appear to be a refutation of ideas that he is arrogant. However, it is misleading to identify humility in his constant demands to cadge accommodation for the night. His implication is that once he’s rapidly gathered the relevant knowledge, he will decide on the required course of action and issue us with instructions accordingly.

Thus the Centrist Dad becomes the benign dictator. Stewart is all for the Big State — provided he is the one in charge. Yet even if his judgement were as impeccable as he believes it to be, there is an obvious hitch. There are eight billion of us on the planet. Lacking any coherent principles as he seeks to micromanage our lives is not practical. With too many floors to sleep on, his omnipotence cannot be realised.

Does the account of this conceited, virtue-signalling, name-dropping sofa surfer have anything to commend it? Oddly enough, it does. Chris Mullin’s diaries offered a self-deprecatory account of the life of a junior Minister in the Blair era. Modesty was the key ingredient as he catalogued the petty humiliations and frustrations of being crushed by the bureaucratic machine. Others would have preferred to have gone along with the pretence that they exercised real power.

Stewart’s revelations are driven more by arrogance. That causes him, plausibly, to document the failings of his colleagues and the officials he encounters. The irony is that he unwittingly gives evidence in support of the “free market dogmatists” he is so keen to oppose.

Examples from a couple of Government Departments give a flavour.

As an International Development Minister, rather than simply repeating that spending 0.7 per cent of our GDP on Aid was an achievement in itself (a key tenet of Centrist Dadism), he started asking some awkward questions about the effectiveness of the spending:

The most serious think tank in Afghanistan has conducted detailed fieldwork studies to demonstrate that the 3,500 teachers that we believed we were funding in Ghor simply didn’t exist.

He also recounts:

Arriving in rural Zambia, I found four white UN-branded land cruisers and a group of international engineers, who explained that the $40,000 we had allocated for the project had paid for two latrines at a cost of perhaps $1,000 and five red plastic buckets. This, I was told, was an example of “appropriate technology”. “No need for implementing pipes, Minister,” said a UN engineer, who was implementing the project on our behalf, “the students can fill the buckets at the well.” “But why didn’t we just give a twentieth of this amount to the teacher and ask him to buy the latrines and buckets?” “He might have stolen the money.” I restrained myself from saying that the UN had stolen the money instead.

Once our man becomes the Prison Minister, some more discoveries emerge. He visited the squalor of Liverpool Prison, run by the Government, where prisoners would break windows to allow rubbish to be thrown out and drones to deliver drugs. He had been “struck by the contrast with another prison a mile and a half down the road, which was run by a private company”:

I had been suspicious of private prisons but this jail seemed to have a confidence and competence that was lacking in a public prison.

On the landings, the officers smiled, and were keen to talk. The cells were clean, and each prisoner had a computer monitor. Across a yard, amidst a shimmering blaze of sparks, and under the struts of a large hangar, prisoners were welding and cutting metal to make canisters and recycling bins. The prisoners moved with confidence absorbed in their task.

The private prison had “a slightly smaller budget and fewer prison officers” than the state one. “Yet it had much better inspection reports on cleanliness, education and prisoner engagement and much less violence and drug use.”

This is interesting testimony. Does Stewart then demand that less aid be spent via the UN, or that more prisons are privatised? He does not. Whilst fondly imagining himself to be non-ideological, he can’t quite bring himself to challenge the rigid centrist dad consensus. Thus the evidence is discounted in deference to the big state and the platitudes about being “moderate” and “compassionate”.

Stewart has done us a service in demonstrating administrative failings. What pathos there is in his imagining that if he were pulling the broken levers, it would all come right.

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