Image credit: Andrew Chorley.
Speaking exclusively to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Comment Central’s Bruce Newsome talks May, Brexit, the soul, and a potential leadership.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is one of only a few politicians who can walk on stage during a heat wave, wearing a buttoned dark double-breasted suit, to speak for an hour in a marquee warmed by hundreds of guests, and not break a sweat. His good humour, quick wit, sharp reposts, self-deprecation, and soothing manners never falter.
Yet, despite self-possession and mindfulness, even in my private interview Jacob Rees-Mogg is open and honest about his leader (Theresa May), the future of the Conservative Party, and Brexit.
Inevitably, since he was speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, he was introduced flippantly as a representative from the Eighteenth Century, although he replied that he preferred the Seventeenth Century, given the “growth of parliamentary democracy” then. At times reminiscent of religious faith, his consideration of British parliamentary democracy anchors almost everything he said. This is most obvious in his views on Brexit, which he characterized as the most important constitutional change since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and certainly a more important change than the vote to join the European Community in 1975, because now we are leaving a European Union with “fingers in every pie”.
He welcomes Brexit for “reinforcing democracy” and “reclaiming civil law.” He asserts “a fundamental difference” between the English-tradition of “common law” (derived from judicial decisions) and the continent’s grounding in Roman, or “Napoleonic law”. Everybody in the realm, even the monarch, is subject to common law, but the continental tradition is comfortable with several steps of separation between rulers and both judicial and democratic accountability. For Rees-Mogg, the British tradition is “incompatible” with the European Union.
He admits that he worries about being wrong in general, but not on the principle of “voting against European governance” of Britain. “We’re better at it ourselves.” He delivered this conclusion with rare exclamation, which earned the second loudest round of applause of the event.
The loudest applause was earned in answer to a question about how he could look young people in the face given that they will live with more of the consequences of leaving the EU. Rees-Mogg replied that he believed that young people will value the right to vote directly for all their policymakers: “You can’t vote out the European bureaucracy.” Incidentally, that questioner started off by saying that he was “much more likeable” than she had expected, which drew the loudest laughter of the evening.
The only issue that would have persuaded him to vote Remain in 2016 would have been a significant risk to the union with Scotland; subsequently, Brexit has strengthened the union. The union with Northern Ireland remains just as strong and the border can be resolved more easily than the fashionable discourse pretends.
Everything since the referendum has confirmed his confidence in Brexit, including the EU’s intransigence and the performance of Britain’s economy against most forecasts. “The EU is the risk to our competitiveness” because it piles on regulations that are focused on controlling competition within the EU instead of promoting competitiveness with the rest of the world. He prefers a “free market” to a “protectionist European Union.”
More reports are confirming that May is telling her Cabinet to unite around a “soft Brexit,” but that would be unacceptable to Rees-Mogg. When I asked him to clarify what sort of Brexit he would find unacceptable, he said that he would oppose any commitment to pay £39 billion without a specified trade deal. But surely, I replied, that is what May had already agreed in December 2017. This was the only time I saw Rees-Mogg rattled all day. He evaded the link.
Is he a populist? Yes, he said, if you mean he is offering people what is best for them. Politicians gain votes by promising people what they want – often this means promising what can’t be delivered (such as more spending on everything) or what politicians have no intention of delivering. Populism is a rebellion against choices that are best for the elite. “The people make the choice, politicians offer the choice.” “I was born into the establishment; that’s how I know how rotten it is” – at least since it was taken over by “the liberal metropolitan elite.” During debates over the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill, “the condescension in the House of Lords was absolutely extraordinary”. If they had better understood the outside world, they would have predicted Brexit.
Without prompting, Rees-Mogg reversed the elitist blame of the voter for the decline in voter turnout. He blamed it on the elite offering poor choices. Since turnout declined in the general elections of 1997 and 2001, implicitly the ultimate blame attaches to Tony Blair, who won those elections, but also John Major as Conservative Party leader in 1997, and his successor William Hague through the general election of 2001. The blame might extend to the subsequent leaders Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, who led the party without a return to government.
What is his view of the party’s leadership into the future? Coincidentally, today Conservative Home’s editor reported a new survey of members and suggested “a sense that change is coming sooner rather than later – that Theresa May might not be prime minister by this time next year, or even earlier, and that the time has come to think more probingly about a replacement.” Rees-Mogg had either topped the monthly poll, or come second to “other,” since the general election in 2017, although now Rees-Mogg is fourth, behind Sajid Javid (the Home Secretary), Michael Gove (the Environment Secretary), and “other”.
Rees-Mogg said that May “is doing very well considering the shocking majority” she earned at the 2017 election. This was a clever way of blaming May while formally empathizing. He went further with a back-handed compliment. He asked the audience to think of the party conference in October 2017, when “she was losing her voice and the stage was collapsing,” but she carried on. He said that the scene reminded him of the film “Carry on up the Khyber” (1968), when Sid James portrayed an officer unphased in his personal ablutions during enemy attacks. Rees-Mogg ground out the analogy with untypical relish, then he concluded calmly that he valued the principle of “doing your duty, and I think duty is the word that best describes Mrs. May.”
Rees-Mogg says that he supports May as leader, but clearly this is partisan not personal. “The Tory Party gets itself in trouble whenever it conspires against its leader,” although “that doesn’t mean you should agree with every policy.” He said that she may not be your choice of leader, but “she is the leader of the party, and loyalty is the Conservative Party’s secret weapon.”
I asked him to clarify an apparent contradiction: he praises parliamentary democracy for the voter’s capacity to directly elect and deselect representatives, while he was denying himself his capacity as a Member of Parliament to deselect his party leader. He clarified that he was retaining the “right” as a Member of Parliament, but his “choice” is to support his party leader.
Yet, Rees-Mogg has no hesitation in discussing who should replace Theresa May.
He said that since Stanley Baldwin, the “formbook” has been for a former Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, or Home Secretary to become prime minister. Only four Prime Ministers have ever become PM without previously holding Cabinet positions, of which two are Tony Blair and David Cameron. He clearly regrets both their premierships: he was explicit about Blair; in another context (his defence of our monarch as head of state), he added the vision of a President Cameron as almost as disagreeable as a President Blair.
In 2016, Rees-Mogg had offered support to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom successively as their bids collapsed. Now, Johnson appears to be Rees-Mogg’s favourite. Explicitly, he said that “Boris is a brilliant foreign secretary” because he represents Britain’s interests abroad. Since that is what he urges May to do as premier, logically Johnson would suit him better as premier.
Curiously, Rees-Mogg undermined many of the candidates by raising the advantage of maturity. This may have been intended as a dig at Blair and Cameron, who became premiers in their forties. Rees-Mogg said that we should welcome a candidate aged 70, but I could not discover whom he might have in mind (Sajid Javid is 48; Michael Gove is nearly 51; Boris is 54; Amber Rudd is nearly 55; Liam Fox is pushing 57; Theresa May is 61; Rees-Mogg is barely 49).
Rees-Mogg says that he is “not a realistic prospect” for election to leader, because he must be elected by MPs, whatever his popularity with others. He seems to have social conservatism in mind, which is rooted explicitly in his Catholicism. When asked about the influence of his Catholicism on his politics, he said the only fundamental influence was “the value of every soul,” which influences his politics on human life, but being a Catholic “doesn’t mean I have a hotline to the Vatican” on other issues – such as how to vote on Heathrow’s third runway. Nobody laughed.