RORY Stewart has a long history of walking into conflict.

The Penrith and the Border MP, who in 2002 trekked across Afghanistan just months after the murderous Taliban regime was blasted into retreat, is now locked into a battle of ideas that could change the course of British political history.

The UK is in the grip of Brexit paralysis.

And, just as in Afghanistan, Mr Stewart has sought to understand this complex political malaise by connecting with the ordinary people who are paying its price.

For more than two weeks, he has walked, mingled, debated, and tweeted his way through the UK’s Brexit dilemma - not in the oak-panelled rooms of Parliament, but on the streets.

To show his party he can lead, Mr Stewart must prove he is a politician who can win over voters - the people whose judgement will decide the fate of all our politicians.

Mr Stewart was one of five Conservative leadership candidates who joined a Channel 4 debate on Sunday, each answering questions from a live audience.

Articulate and at times combative, Mr Stewart seemed relaxed as he put the case for “honesty” and “realism”

He stood apart from his rivals, accusing them of pursuing a competition in “machismo” and selling voters “unicorns”.

So how did he do?

There has been praise and criticism. There was some fulsome praise.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, parliamentary sketch writer Michael Deacon was in no doubt: “If you were to judge it by the response of the studio audience, Channel 4’s debate had only one winner.

“Rory Stewart got more rounds of applause than any other candidate – and, at the end, when each took turns to sum up, he was the only candidate to get a round of applause at all.”

In his closing statement, Mr Stewart spoke of what he learned as he walked across the UK to find answers to Brexit from ordinary people.

He told viewers: “I have spent the last few weeks travelling around this country, from Londonderry to Derby, and everywhere that I have been I have felt a sense of palpable anger of a country that feels less than the sum of its parts. I began as the rank outsider in this race - 100/1 against me.

“According to my wife today, I am now number two at the bookies.

“But I am still an outsider and I am campaigning on telling the truth as I see it and never making promises that we can’t deliver.

“I would invite you to send me through to that final round so that we can make this great party and this great country, again something founded on honesty and trust.”

Away from the limelight, how does he rate his chances?

In an interview with the News & Star, he was asked whether he thinks he really can defeat Boris Johnson and win the top job.

Will enough MPs back him at the next vote to keep him in the contest?

“I should have enough,” he replied. “With my campaign, it’s always touch-and-go. I hope to get across the threshold.”

He has not yet won over a prominent remainer colleague. But he feels the recent European election was a stark wake-up call for his colleagues.

“It was an electric shock to members of Parliament,” he said.

“It shows how impatient the public is, and fed up with delays.

“We need to get Brexit done.”

Theresa May’s deal is the only one on the table and trying to rework it will leave the UK stuck - possibly for years. Mr Stewart added: “My suspicion is that once we’ve got it done, you’ll find it was a pretty good deal.”

But can he beat Boris?

“Certainly, I’m behind him,” he admitted.

“But I’m second, and I’m the person with the best shot and that confirms my basic thesis: there are only two people capable of defeating Boris: one is him, and the other is me.”

But what would a Rory Stewart premiership mean for Cumbria?

The MP said: “Above all, it would mean protecting our small upland farms; and making sure we don’t end up with an agreement which wipes out our farming industry.”

He also promised superfast broadband for remote rural areas; and more investment in schools.

The Places in Between describes Stewart’s danger-fraught walk through a history-rich country traumatised by poverty and war.