Mitt Romney, Rory Stewart and the tragedy of politics


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At least he doesn’t have to podcast. The king’s ransom he made at Bain Capital will ensure that. Whatever disappointments, indignities and mortal threats US politics has visited on Mitt Romney, his retirement needn’t be spent asking people to leave a review on iTunes.

This is one thing, besides age, that marks him out from Rory Stewart, who is otherwise his British analogue. Each man took a stand against a blond-haired demagogue while other conservatives bent the knee. Each, in the end, failed. But in doing so, each illuminated an eternal fact about politics, one that people in business struggle to understand.

There are no prizes for being right. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney made healthcare reforms that inspired Obamacare, which now commands about 60 per cent public support. And this isn’t the biggest vindication on his record. A decade before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he identified Russia as a geopolitical threat. The response of the sitting president was to crack a joke.

Then there was his (eventual) opposition to Donald Trump. It won’t do to overpraise him here. In 2012, he crawled to the then host of The Apprentice for a presidential endorsement, and got it. He was still shilly-shallying as late as 2018. But, when moral clarity came, it was acted upon with physical courage. Romney voted to convict Trump in both impeachment trials.

Stewart was even righter, even earlier, about even more. He knew that Brexit was a bad idea; that once it had been voted for, membership of the customs union was both sensible in itself and a faithful reflection of the close referendum result; that Boris Johnson was going to disgrace the office of prime minister.

Less well known are his speeches to parliament in the past decade. Here were warnings about low defence spending while much of Europe was still burbling about soft power. He was bleak about the mission in Afghanistan as far back as the 2000s, but also about the quick withdrawal of 2021. In the world of investment, someone with this predictive record would be, if not at the Poussin-collecting level of wealth, rewarded well enough. In politics, where the currency is power, he peaked as international development secretary for all of two months.

I don’t invite sympathy for either man. The game is the game. Romney was too often the creature of fashion, even running from his own healthcare record when it was expedient to do so. Stewart is not, ultimately, of nation-leading fibre. Like lots of lone wolves who become popular later in life (the podcast he co-hosts, The Rest Is Politics, is a monstrous success), he is too anxious to remain so. This month, he suggested to what is left of the Jeremy Corbyn movement that their man was hard done by. Pandering like this doesn’t exude, to use his favourite word, “seriousness”.

But if these aren’t tragic men, exactly, their stories do reveal politics as a tragic craft: one that offers no incentive to be right.

This newspaper, being at the hinge of politics and business, is a good place from which to observe what each world misunderstands about the other. Even the best-briefed people in the private sector get two things wrong about politics. First, they have no understanding of fanaticism. A life of negotiating deals — enforced by commercial courts — never acquaints them with people who have ruthless commitment to abstract doctrine. Perhaps some corporations, having let the cultural left in, are getting to know the type.

But the larger error is to believe that politics is as meritocratic as business: that one’s record of decisions must determine one’s career prospects. Why this is nonsense shouldn’t need spelling out. There is no quantitative value, no “price”, that can be put on most judgments in politics. Whereas it is metaphysically certain whether buying a stock has worked out against a given target, things are always arguable in public life. If there were Russian tanks on Constitution Avenue, Romney would still be accused of not seeing the Kremlin’s point of view.

The story of Winston Churchill is so beguiling to us because he wasn’t just vindicated over appeasement, but rewarded with high office. Like a Frank Capra film, it suggests that natural justice governs the universe. It doesn’t. Rishi Sunak thought Brexit a smart idea. He is the UK premier. Keir Starmer campaigned for Corbyn. He is the likeliest successor. Stewart has one half of a nice podcast.

“But history will be kind,” he and Romney must hear all the time. So what? In which celestial bank are they meant to cash that particular cheque? And of what solace is it to we who live in such ill-led countries?

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