Rory Stewart bids to become National Trust chairman as it reels from ‘woke agenda' claims

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Rory Stewart is seen as someone who could help to return the National Trust to its roots – Eddie Mulholland

Rory Stewart, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, is understood to have applied to become the new chairman of the National Trust, which has been left reeling by claims it has been taken over by a “woke agenda”.

Mr Stewart is being seen by rebel members as a welcome external candidate who might be able to return the 126-year-old charity to its roots of looking after historic buildings, interiors, artefacts, gardens and countryside to the highest standard.

Mr Stewart, a former international development secretary who challenged Boris Johnson for the Tory party leadership in 2019, is understood to be seeking to replace Tim Parker, who resigned in May.

The chairman of the Trust is an unpaid role and is the most senior of the charity’s 50,000 volunteers.

The National Trust manages many properties and parklands, including Powis Castle Gardens in Wales – Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

The deadline for applications was last Sunday. Odgers Berndtson, a recruitment consultant retained by the National Trust, is due to start sifting the candidates at preliminary interviews in the weeks starting October 25 and November 1. The successful candidate will be announced by the end of the year.

Who else is in the running?

Other external candidates are said to include Charles Gurassa, the chairman of Channel 4, whose term is due to expire in January next year; and Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery for a decade until 2015, when he joined the National Trust's board of trustees.

An early contender who was tipped as a possible new chairman – Rupert Gavin, the chairman of Historic Royal Palaces – did not submit his application by last Sunday's deadline. None would comment when approached by The Telegraph. The National Trust declined to say who had applied to be chairman.

The external applicants to replace Mr Parker are expected to face a stiff challenge from Orna Ni-Chionna, who has been deputy chairman of the Trust since 2014. She is understood to be keen to replace Mr Parker, who had served two three-year terms, and agreed to a “third exceptional term” to provide stability during the Covid-19 crisis.

Ms Ni-Chionna is the wife of Baron Turner of Ecchinswell, who as Adair Turner was chairman of the CBI in the early days of the New Labour government.

Ms Ni-Chionna has an additional advantage in the process, in that she will have a chance to impress the panel who have to find the new chairman by presiding at the National Trust's annual general meeting on October 30 at the Harrogate Convention Centre in Harrogate.

That meeting could prove to be a test of Ms Ni-Chionna's steady hand as Restore Trust, a group of rebels, is backing a slate of members which it says “best represents our values” to be appointed to the Trust's board.

National Trust 'has lost its way'

Restore Trust was set up earlier this year in response to this concern. A new company – RT 2021 – has been set up to handle the £50,000 which has so far been donated to the campaign.

Neil Bennett, a spokesman for Restore Trust, made clear that the appointment of Ms Ni-Chionna would be unacceptable, saying: “Someone who has already served on the board for eight years would not seem to me to be a suitable candidate for an organisation that needs change.”

He added: “Restore Trust is a movement of National Trust members who feel the National Trust – and specifically the senior leadership of the National Trust – has lost its way.

“By listening to each other, we will be able to help the National Trust focus on a vision that unites us all.

“We would like to see the members have a greater say. The National Trust is at its heart a members’ organisation and the members should have a greater say in the management and governance.”

There was anger among MPs and members when the Trust published a report in September last year into the links between its properties – including the home of Winston Churchill – and the UK’s colonial and slavery past.

The National Trust came under fire after publishing a report into the links between its properties, such as Chartwell, and the UK’s colonial past – Surrey Live/BPM Media

After widespread criticism, the Charity Commission opened a “regulatory compliance case” last autumn. A Heritage Minister later told Parliament that the report was “unfortunate” and the Trust should go back to its “core functions”.

At last November’s virtual annual meeting, Mr Parker came under fire after he described Black Lives Matter, which in the UK has called on the government to “defund the police”, as a “human rights movement with no party-political affiliations” in a letter to a member.

Tim Parker is due to stand down as chairman of the National Trust – Geoff Pugh

Speaking at the meeting, Mr Parker said “we are not members of BLM”, adding that he hoped members would see “that in no way the Trust has become a political organisation that has been taken over by a bunch of woke folk or anything of that nature”.

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