I’d like to say Johnson and Brexit made me quit politics. But they were symptoms of the problem, not the cause | Rory Stewart

The Conservative party is haemorrhaging MPs. Seventy-eight of my former colleagues will be standing down this year, after Rishi Sunak’s summer election. And who can blame them? I am tempted to say my own decision to leave parliament in 2019 was because of Boris Johnson and his approach to Brexit, and because of just how rough and humiliating X and Facebook can be. But these problems were instead symptoms of a system that made me feel like a fraud almost all the time.

As a British minister, for instance, I had to be at least three different things, in three places, at one time. I was an MP serving constituents in the Cumbrian-Scottish border; I was also paid to be a parliamentarian, voting 350 miles south in Westminster; and also a minister, often abroad, moving through five different positions in four years. How do you balance your obligation to visit a health project in Nigeria against being present in parliament to vote on assisted dying – when on the same day there is an event for a hospice in your constituency? When there is no time for such important things, how much time should you spend with your children?

We strode into the debating chamber past marble statues of ancient orators and then used prime minister’s questions to secure press releases in the local paper. (“Will my right honourable friend congratulate Appleby Rovers on their victory … ?”) In debates we read drab speeches, hastily written by superficially informed assistants, to other members who were staring at their phones. Discussions in the tea rooms revolved around gossip, not Gaza – around how to get promoted or trick the opposition, not how to fix adult social care.

And then there were the reshuffles. I had not yet finished my plan for the British environment before I was put in charge of development programs in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Before I had a chance to visit Pakistan, I was transferred to Africa. My Africa strategy had not yet been signed off when I was made the minister of state at the ministry of justice, responsible for more than 100 prisons in England and Wales. Before I had finished my work on prison violence, I became the secretary of state for international development. My knowledge of these portfolios was absurdly limited. And this was true of most of us.

It was a rare defence secretary – Labour or Conservative – who understood the difference between a major and a sergeant major before they took over responsibility for the armed forces. Few ministers were decent managers. And because we were badly informed, motivated by the most short-term political agendas and likely to be reshuffled in a few months’ time, civil servants understandably blocked many of our initiatives. We responded tetchily – either by simply presiding over a system we did not control, or by randomly demanding changes whose consequences we barely understood.

Nevertheless, I stood at the dispatch box, as though I might be a statesman of the kind you see in a black and white photograph on classroom walls. And when I answered questions on the situation in Burundi or the Central African Republic, I never mentioned that I had never visited these countries, suspected that the UK did not even have embassies in such places, and was certain that we had neither the appetite nor capacity to do much about them.

Meanwhile, my voters did not care about such things. They wanted me to fix residents’ parking, challenge a planning application at the edge of the village, or secure a lift at Penrith train station. I rarely acknowledged that the real responsibility for these issues lay with local councillors, and that I had neither the budget nor the authority to deal with most of the issues listed in the campaigning leaflets.

Again, I was supposed to be a legislator and debater. I was assessed on my votes through a website called TheyWorkForYou – which told the country that I had “consistently voted for benefit cuts and in favour of military intervention”. But these were not free votes, where MPs are able to vote as they please. As a minister, I was obliged to vote with the government and party whip. And far too much of my energy was focused on the tiny numbers of party members – a few hundred in the constituency, older and more ideological than the general public – who controlled my selection, and deselection, and the choice of party leader.

Very little in this system rewarded seriousness, prudence, or diligent administration. Instead, it rewarded an ability to shimmer lightly and shamelessly over the surface of party and policy. It helped to be able to abandon old loyalties and previous commitments, and switch positions with ease. To run for the leadership, it seemed essential to titillate, and outrage, and shamelessly feed whatever projections the base or the press required – from Brexit to Rwanda. In such a system, Johnson and Liz Truss were not abberations, they were almost inevitable.

The utter lack of seriousness would have been simply embarrassing, if it were not for the fact that I did help to bring some small improvements – I was proud of the work we did in prisons – but these achievements were unreliable and easily reversed.

So I left. For these reasons, and also because of Johnson and Brexit and social media. And yet, I still feel ashamed of leaving. I’m sure the MPs standing down ahead of this election have similarly mixed feelings. We need people to run this system – which governs a country of about 70 million people, oversees a budget of almost a trillion pounds a year, protects our liberties and runs our most basic human services. There were politicians – my colleague David Gauke, for instance – who seemed to be able to navigate the weirdness, and still retain their focus on policy and their grace in leadership. And I would like to learn how they did it. I feel guilt for abandoning the ship. And hardly a day goes by when I don’t feel that I need to return into this lurching unstable mirror world and give it a go again.

The Guardian

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