He may not have been successful in a bid to become the next leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, but it would be impossible not to recognise Rory Stewart as the candidate who has gained more than any other during the campaign.
As so often stated, Stewart began his leadership campaign as the underdog in a contest expected to be won by Boris Johnson, ahead of the likes of Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove. All three have represented the Conservative party in Westminster for much longer than Rory Stewart and as such, began the campaign with the advantage of being much more well-known – both to Conservative members and the wider public.
Admittedly, it wasn’t until around six months ago that I became familiar with the name of Rory Stewart myself, with an interview with LBC’s James O’Brien drawing attention to a man who instantly impressed, coming across as a politician willing to carefully consider detail and consequence, and also acknowledging a need to take a broad range of perspectives into account in order to seek a unifying solution.
For a politician to speak sensibly on a topic such as Brexit without feeling it necessary to express one of the more extreme views was quite refreshing, and there was a clear explanation behind the reasons for the stance being taken.
In contrast, to listen to someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg is to hear a man who often presents himself as an authority on any topic, demonstrating little or no ability to take onboard other points of view without insisting that those disagreeing with him are wrong or mistaken.
And Nigel Farage has made a huge success in attracting people towards his way of thinking by loudly proclaiming a strong argument supporting his point of view – albeit a rather one-sided argument which is instantly dismissive of any facts that are inconvenient – and using emotive language to gain supporters.
Whilst Stewart was obviously clear in his thinking, there was nothing rehearsed about an interview which resembled a couple of blokes having a calm and casual discussion in a pub.
There has been none of Theresa May’s tired soundbites that other MPs, particularly some of those serving as Cabinet Ministers, are so fond of reinforcing. Instead, here was a Tory politician who actually sounded like a normal human being.
And it wasn’t only incredibly refreshing to listen to, but when all of the warring viewpoints of Brexit are taken into account, the view held by Stewart on why the Withdrawal Agreement was something that should be supported was more persuasive than I thought possible, given the fierce opposition from virtually every side of the Brexit debate.
Contrary to other, more high profile figures, Stewart had arrived at his conclusion by taking the whole country into account, rather than furiously fighting for the implementation of his own personal view of what Brexit should look like – again, contrary to a strategy adopted by so many other politicians, who have declared their own personal view as somehow representative of an entire half of the electorate.
It showed an ability to compromise, and to put the nation’s interests above his own, or indeed those of a party containing huge numbers of MPs hellbent on fighting for the most aggressive split from the EU.
During the leadership race, there’s been no holding back in reiterating a stance which is far from popular among Conservative members, with similar levels of restraint shown in demanding to know how colleagues actually intend to deliver promises which seem impossible to achieve.
But where Rory has struggled to win over the votes of those he needs support from in order to make it into Number 10, he has run a hugely successful campaign in terms of how he’s engaged voters up and down the country.
A pragmatic approach to policy based on realism and common sense has been extremely well-received, as has his refusal to make promises that are either irresponsible, or that would be extremely difficult to deliver.
A genuine ability to listen to opinion has also resonated with people, and is a world away from the huge egos of politicians who simply think that they know better, and who promote themselves and their accomplishments to levels which only illustrate how they think far more of themselves than anyone else does.
With politics in crisis, the last thing that the public needs is for the main political parties to be led by figures who are completely out-of-touch with the realities facing large parts of the nation, or to endure more of what has created such a state of affairs in the first place.
This is why Rory Stewart, for whatever faults he has, represented something different. A change of direction, with honesty and decency at the centre of his politics, and a greater willingness to reach out across the political spectrum and listen to points of view which, for too long, have resulted in the opinions of so many people being ignored.
The problem for Rory, in terms of a leadership contest, is that Brexit has become the most divisive issue, and a candidate’s stance on how to leave the European Union was always going to be crucial to securing the level of necessary support from colleagues.
The group of MPs willing to see the UK leave without a deal have grown in number and influence, and are entirely at odds with a Brexit stance that involves leaving the EU but continuing to have a close working relationship with neighboring European countries.
Had Stewart been a position of more influence two or three years ago, it’s possible that his message may have reached far more of the people he was relying on support from. But opinions have hardened and become more extreme as time has passed by, which has contributed to a political climate in which the majority seem either to advocate leaving without a deal or, at the opposite extreme, revoking Article 50 entirely and remaining an EU member state.
That a situation exists is not the fault of Rory Stewart, but does help to explain why he never stood a chance of gaining the necessary level of support from Tory colleagues based in Parliament.
As he said on Wednesday, following the result of the vote which saw him eliminated from the race, the approach by each of his colleagues to resolving Brexit is risky.
Whoever does land the job of Prime Minister may well manage to deliver what they are promising. And they may even see some success in the process of unifying the country.
But there’ll be enormous pressure to achieve both of these things, and should the situation over Brexit remain deadlocked, or the deep divisions across the country not show signs of being healed, there might be a few MPs wishing that they’d backed a different candidate.