Rory Stewart has withdrawn his independent bid for the London mayoralty after the contest was extended by a year because of coronavirus.
Stewart, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said he could not ask his volunteer campaigners to keep going for another 12 months, as he sought to challenge Labour’s Sadiq Khan for the top job in the capital.
He had launched his campaign to be an insurgent candidate after failing in an attempt to be Tory leader and then losing the party whip over Brexit. He resigned as an MP before the last election.
Speaking to the Evening Standard, Stewart said he could not compete with the Labour and Tory machines which have bigger budgets for another year.
“The point about an independent campaign is it needs to be a sort of quite quick insurgency where you really build excitement over a few months,” he said. “But you can’t beat these huge machines if you’re pushed into a nearly two-year campaign.”
Stewart had been in third place, according to the polls, behind Khan and the Tory candidate, Shaun Bailey. Khan is strongly expected to win a second term.
The capital had been due to go to the polls on Thursday along with local council elections, which have also been postponed.
Stewart said: “We were on our way to a great battle this time round, I thought. One of the team just said: ‘It’s like one of those drag races – we built our car but we never really got to race it properly.’
“It’s been a very difficult decision. It’s a job I really, really dreamed of. I don’t think I will ever find another role in the world which would be as exciting or satisfying as that. It would have been a great, great privilege. There is no city like it in the world.
“If I had been lucky enough to be elected I would much rather have done [this] than being prime minister.”
He told the Standard he wanted to stay in public life and maybe write a book about politics but he would not rejoin the Tories.
He said: “I would like to stay in some form of public service… so maybe some charities or universities and see if there will be another opportunity in the future to contribute in some way. It just didn’t seem fair or realistic to [continue].”
Stewart was one of the first to sound the alarm about government slowness to order a lockdown over the coronavirus crisis, urging the prime minister to shut schools and cancel major events in early March. At that time, the government and its scientists were saying it was not necessary and former Tory colleagues accused him of “sensationalising” the crisis for political ends.