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Stewart quits Conservative Party to run for London mayor

Rory Stewart has resigned from the Conservative Party. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA
Sam Blewett

FORMER Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart has quit the Conservative Party and will run as an independent candidate for London mayor.

The ex-Cabinet minister was among the 21 rebels who had the whip removed by Boris Johnson when they defied the prime minister by backing a move designed to block a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Stewart ran against Mr Johnson in the contest to lead his party in June, but on Friday he announced his decision to quit the party and stand down as MP for Penrith and The Border MP in the next general election.

The 2020 mayoral election will pit him against Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan and Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey, who was backed by Mr Johnson in his Tory conference speech on Wednesday.

Mr Stewart warned of the danger of Brexit to the capital and said he wanted to combat "extremism" in British politics as London mayor.

"I'm leaving that gothic shouting chamber of Westminster, I'm getting away from a politics which makes me sometimes feel as though [US President Donald] Trump has never left London," he said.

His campaign hit the ground running, with a letter announcing his mayoral decision to the London Evening Standard being covered on the newspaper's front page.

The president of his local Conservative association said the PM's removal of the whip may have played a role in the move.

Mr Stewart received some cross-party praise, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was highly critical of the MP's track record of backing austerity.

"Rory Stewart wholeheartedly backed Tory cuts that have ripped the heart out of our communities and done so much damage to our police, NHS and schools. He would be a disaster for London," the Islington North MP said.

Mr Stewart served as international development secretary until his resignation from government in July, shortly before Mr Johnson took office and undertook his drastic Cabinet reshuffle.

The firm opponent of a no-deal Brexit was among the rebels who voted to take control of the commons timetable in order to pass legislation aimed at blocking a sudden exit from the EU.

The PM retaliated by ordering the controversial cull, which saw two former chancellors stripped of the Conservative whip.

Amber Rudd, a former cabinet colleague who resigned from Mr Johnson's Cabinet and the Tory party last month, said the departure of an "outstanding" MP and minister was a "loss to politics".

"One of the strongest speakers in parliament. Principled, patient, thoughtful. I feel certain he'll be back," she tweeted.

Mr Stewart wrote in his column in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald that he considered standing as an independent in Penrith before ruling it out.

"But it should be no secret that there are also local party members who would rather I did not run again. I don't want to test loyalties, destroy old friendships or push any of these issues any further," he said.

Robert Craig, president of the Penrith and The Border Conservative Association, said Mr Stewart would "possibly" not have made the decision if he still had the Tory whip.

"I suppose had that changed... it seems to have become clear that that wasn't going to change and he has other ambitions," Mr Craig said.

Mr Craig praised Mr Stewart as an "inspirational" MP who managed to attract a broad church of followers, and criticised Mr Johnson for taking the party in an "extreme" direction.

The independent was welcomed to the race by Mr Bailey, as he took a swipe at the current mayor for having a "woeful record".

Mr Khan said he "welcomes all challenges", adding: "The most important thing in this election is that London chooses a mayor committed to stopping Brexit and standing up for London's values in the shadow of the huge cuts imposed by the Tory government."

The 46-year-old MP was first elected to the Penrith constituency in 2010.

That was after serving as the coalition deputy-governor of two provinces in southern Iraq following the 2003 invasion and a tint as an officer in the army's black watch.

Mr Stewart's first public mention of his resignation came during a reading at London's Royal Albert Hall, but many in the audience took it as a joke.

He read a letter written to the PM's father Stanley Johnson in 1982 from his son's former house master at Eton College, Martin Hammond.

The letter, chosen for Mr Stewart by organisers, states that the schoolboy had adopted a "disgracefully cavalier" attitude to his classical studies and "sometimes seems affronted when criticised".

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