It used to be a common complaint that Britain’s political class consisted of bland, identikit PR creations who were all spin and no substance. Recently, there has been something of a backlash. A 66-year-old veteran left-wing backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn, became Labour leader in 2015. A year later, Nigel Farage – a curious combination of bonhomie and belligerence – helped deliver victory for Leave in the EU referendum. Even the prime minister, Theresa May, made a virtue of not being flashy in her campaign to become Conservative leader in 2016.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the backbench Conservative MP and Brexiteer, is another in this line of “authentic” politicians. The son of former Times editor William Rees-Mogg, Jacob is an unashamed anachronism. Instantly recognisable with his double-breasted suits, side parting and plummy accent, Rees-Mogg is an eccentric young fogey, a modern-day Bertie Wooster. He is enormously privileged and gloriously out of touch.
During his first (unsuccessful) election campaign, his childhood nanny joined him canvassing. Despite having six children – the latest named Sixtus – he admits to having never changed a nappy (“I don’t think nanny would approve because I’m sure she’d think I wouldn’t do it properly”). He has his own online fan club, “Moggmentum”. And he is currently the 9/2 second favourite with the bookmaker, William Hill, to become the next prime minister (Jeremy Corbyn is the favourite).
Rise to prominence
Rees-Mogg’s popularity is based on his authenticity. He is renowned for his willingness to stand by his socially conservative principles. That has led to controversy: as a devout Roman Catholic, he opposes same-sex marriage and has expressed his opposition to abortion in all circumstances, including rape. To his progressive enemies, Rees-Mogg is a bigot and his public appearances have attracted protestors. To his supporters, his refusal to compromise on his principles ensures that his political messages have clarity, and that whatever else he is accused of, obfuscation and opportunism are not among them.
But if Rees-Mogg’s early years in British politics were spent as a gadfly, he is becoming a more significant figure – and Brexit is the reason. He campaigned for Leave in the referendum and, since then, has become a vocal spokesman for a clean separation between Britain and the EU.
Like most on the right of the Conservative Party, Rees-Mogg is opposed to any “soft Brexit” that would keep the UK in the single market and the customs union. His clarity of principle, calm delivery and occasional wit, together with his greater public profile, elevated his voice above those of other hard eurosceptic Tories. This prominence helped him to be elected unopposed in January as chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), a eurosceptic lobby group of Conservative MPs. The group sent a letter to the prime minister urging her to stand by her Lancaster House speech of 2017 in which she set out her vision of Brexit. The letter was signed by 62 backbench Tory MPs, including Rees-Mogg.
The government’s loss of its parliamentary majority in the general election last year left it in a weakened position over Brexit policy. A handful of pro-EU Tory rebels have used their leverage to extract concessions from the government and on one occasion (a “meaningful vote” over any Brexit deal) to side with the opposition and defeat it. In response, hard eurosceptics have organised to prevent the government being dragged into a soft Brexit by Remainer MPs.
Rees-Mogg’s election as ERG chairman has given Brexiteers a high-profile leader who is a true believer and not afraid to stand up to the prime minister. That was evident last month when he dismissed May’s preferred “customs partnership” with the EU to avoid a hard border in Ireland as “completely cretinous”.
He then went further, hinting that he had “doubts” about the prime minister, while denouncing the UK’s Brexit negotiating strategy as “abject weakness”. His utterances on Brexit are now routinely reported by the media.
May’s weak authority and the delicate parliamentary arithmetic prevent her from launching a full-scale attack on Rees-Mogg and the Brexiteers. Indeed, the ERG provides ballast for cabinet Leavers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, with the former in particular feeling emboldened to stretch the bounds of collective responsibility over Brexit.
Some commentators have urged May to call Rees-Mogg’s bluff and go for a soft Brexit, for which they claim, there is a majority in parliament. But is it a bluff? There is no majority for soft Brexit within the Conservative Party and if the prime minister tried to push it through, she would split her party. In those circumstances, and with nothing more to lose, who could be certain that Tory MPs would not trigger a confidence vote in their leader? It would take 48 of them to do it and Rees-Mogg could play a key mobilising role.
The next PM?
Some have spoken of Rees-Mogg himself as a potential leader. A few years ago, that would have sounded absurd. But Corbyn’s election as Labour leader transformed perceptions of feasible candidacies. Like Corbyn, Rees-Mogg is a grassroots favourite with an unspun image and strong convictions. His controversial views on abortion would be held up by opponents as evidence of his unfitness to lead. But supporters would say he is not afraid to hold unpopular opinions – just as Corbyn’s supporters said of their man in relation to immigration, nuclear disarmament and Hamas. Also like Corbyn, Rees-Mogg is personable and mild-mannered in a way that belies his non-centrist views. In today’s politics, personality goes a long way.
Given that individual Conservative members select the leader from a shortlist of two drawn up by MPs, a Rees-Mogg tilt at the leadership cannot be ruled out. Even if he didn’t run, he could still be influential in the next leadership contest. As the tribune of backbench euroscepticism in the Conservative Party, Rees-Mogg could be the kingmaker. Brexiteer candidates would eagerly seek his endorsement.
That might be his best bet. Inflexible principles can hobble one’s own leadership, but usefully influence someone else’s leadership. Rees-Mogg looks set to continue influencing the politics of Brexit more than most other politicians. It is time we started taking him seriously.