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Underdog Rory Stewart gives Tory big beasts a fright in UK leadership race

Alex Morales and Tim Ross, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

LONDON -- He's admitted smoking opium, pledged to revive the most unpopular plan in the history of Britain's Parliament and acknowledged that he has many weaknesses and a lot to learn.

But Rory Stewart, the rank outsider in the contest to become Britain's next leader, is suddenly winning support and giving his bigger-name rivals a reason to worry.

Officials working for three better-known contenders privately said they believed Stewart could deliver a major upset in the Conservative Party leadership votes this week. His rivals have now begun taking him seriously as a threat.

Stewart is aiming to defy the odds and make it through the voting among Tory members of Parliament on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to a probable head-to-head against Boris Johnson, the favorite, next month.

"He's the candidate that other candidates fear," Cabinet minister David Gauke, one of Stewart's earliest backers, said in an interview. "If he gets a chance of being in the final two, he is the candidate who can deliver a big surprise."

Britain is in the middle of a political crisis after Theresa May was forced to quit as prime minister over her failure to complete the country's exit from the European Union. The result of the contest will decide what kind of Brexit the U.K. pursues and shape the country's political dynamics and economic outlook for years.

 

Johnson is promising a decisive break from the EU by the Oct. 31 deadline, even without a deal. But Stewart insists the only option for delivering on the 2016 referendum is to ensure May's unpopular withdrawal agreement -- which was defeated three times in Parliament, including once by a record margin -- succeeds.

His manifesto is for compromise. He wants to root government in the center-ground of politics, and to be humble enough to accept his limits and tell the truth.

Stewart, the international development secretary, started his campaign with a typically eccentric decision. Instead of trying to win over the electorate that matters in the first stages of the contest -- the 313 Tory MPs who will whittle down the crowded field of 10 candidates to two -- he walked high streets around Britain to speak directly to voters.

"Theoretically this should be catastrophic for me," Stewart, 46, told journalists Monday. "Oddly what seems to be happening is that people are refreshed."

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