‘Here he comes,” murmured a fellow American student who’d arrived at Oxford the term before I did. “Churchill.”
The time was January of 1991, the place the ramshackle debate chamber of the Oxford Union Society. The Union was debating an updated version of the infamous 1933 King and Country motion — “this House will in no circumstances fight for its Queen and Country” — on the eve of the first Gulf War.
My seatmate in the hall was referring to Jacob Rees-Mogg, then a gangly 22-year-old from Trinity College, who rose to speak against the resolution amid considerable cheers — and jeers — from the standing-room-only House. “You won’t believe this kid,” my new friend had told me before the debate. “He looks like Ichabod Crane, but he speaks like Churchill crossed with James Earl Jones.”
The details of the long debate that followed are now, sadly, lost to my memory, but the impression left by Rees-Mogg’s turn in the well is as sharp as it was on that cold and tense evening. While his delivery was every bit as stentorian as promised, the quality of Rees-Mogg’s rhetoric and sly humor far outstripped that of the others on his own side as well as his opponents.
I was struck at the time by the familiar themes at the core of his arguments. Several speakers on the Oppose side rose with arguments based on everything from the moral duty to oppose Saddam Hussein’s brutality (somewhat effective) to exhortations that supporting the war was a patriotic obligation (much less so).
Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, attacked the issue with arguments that could have come from a Reagan or Buckley, citing the need to defend the West’s national interests and giving short shrift to the vapid “no blood for oil” bleating that ignored the realities of trade, economics, and statecraft alike.
To an American conservative in a high bastion of Western left-wing academia, listening to his statement and his sharp responses to would-be gotcha questions from the floor was a delight. As we filed out on the Oppose side (which lost, Oxford being Oxford, despite Rees-Mogg’s best efforts), I told my fellow academic expatriate, “25 years from now, that guy is going to be prime minister.”
Twenty-six years on, things haven’t quite worked out that way.
After a successful career in finance, Rees-Mogg was elected to Parliament in 2010, on his third try. In 1997, running as cannon fodder in a Scotland Labor constituency, he had earned only 9 percent of the vote. In 2001, he had run a few points behind the national Conservative average to lose again on his second attempt. In the Conservative upset year of 2010, he finally reached Westminster, claiming the North East Somerset seat handily over his Labour opponent.
By then, Rees-Mogg had endured more than a decade of ridicule from the British press. As the Eton- and Oxford-educated son of a peer (the late Baron William Rees-Mogg, editor of the London Times), he was always an irresistible target for the tabloids. His 19th-century manners, love of formal clothes, flawless received pronunciation, and public embrace of old-fashioned English values and habits had been subjected to public mockery as far back as his college days.
As an adult candidate, he was mercilessly ridiculed for campaigning alongside his childhood nanny. (“Of course I did,” he later said, “Nanny is a member of the family; she’s been a member of the family for longer than I have.”) Prior to the 2010 election, a columnist at the Sunday Times, once the domain of Rees-Mogg’s own father, slammed him as “The barmy candidate” and a “token Rosette-toting joker.”
Rees-Mogg himself dismisses that bad press today as “just gentle, harmless joshing.” It’s hard to imagine many other politicians of any stripe (most especially including the current president of the United States) saying the same thing in his shoes.
As recently as a year ago, his very public role as one of the leading Conservative agitators favoring Brexit had dimmed his political prospects. He was considered a powerless back-bencher, unlikely to ever join the leadership under either the self-consciously Europhilic David Cameron or any of Cameron’s likely heirs.
Now, his future looks much brighter.
Rees-Mogg followed an unusual path to Parliament. Having had a keen interest in equities since childhood — at age eleven, he reportedly turned a £50 inheritance into £3,500 playing the stock market — he spent his first 15 years after Oxford working as an investment manager in London and Hong Kong. In 2007, he founded a highly successful investment-management company of his own, specializing in emerging markets. He continues to work there on an advisory basis to this day.
As a back-bencher opposed by his own party’s leadership (the aforementioned hit piece in the Times also labeled Rees-Mogg “Cameron’s worst nightmare,” and the Cameronites attempted to prevent his standing for the North East Somerset seat in 2010), Rees-Mogg seemed destined to happily wile away his career outside of the Tory decision-making elite. In a 2013 Daily Mail profile, he admitted as much: “l love being on the backbenches . . . I’m much freer. For example, I can say to you that I’d love the Tories to do a deal with UKIP, whereas ministers can’t really say things like that.” Early last year, he told another interviewer that he’d “never been gigantically ambitious. . . . I’m not going to be offered a ministerial portfolio.”
The surprise triumph of Brexit in a June 2016 referendum, followed by Cameron’s immediate retirement, may have changed all of that. Rees-Mogg’s dogged campaigning and calm, erudite support of British independence from the EU bureaucracy yielded more than votes; they won the anachronistic MP national fame and respectful hearings in the decidedly modern arenas of television and social media.
Already a fixture on BBC radio and televised talk shows by the mid 2010s, Rees-Mogg was introduced to social media in a characteristically unusual fashion: via an impostor. Beginning in 2011, a Twitter account with the handle @JakeReesMogg started posting clever, erudite, and often very funny thoughts credited to the new MP, quickly rolling up thousands of followers. The “Rees-Mogg” tweets were quoted by the BBC and other outlets, and assumed by nearly everyone (including me) to be genuine. But it turned out the feed was actually the work of a Labour-leaning, anti-Brexit prankster going by the sobriquet “Otto Q.”
His classical liberalism is much closer to American conservatism than to traditional English Toryism.
Rees-Mogg was unfailingly gracious about the joke. “When it first happened . . . I was quite worried about it,” he told the BBC in 2013. “As it’s gone on, it’s actually been incredibly amiable. It’s a little bit silly, but there’s no great harm in a little silliness in politics.” Later in the same interview, the network staged the MP’s first meeting with his online doppelgänger. The two got on so well that Mr. Q later wrote, “We left the BBC best of pals, and I had to pretend I was going the other way and then hide behind a hedge lest I were to start liking him more.”
At the time, Rees-Mogg politely declined to join social-media sites himself, saying, “The truth is, Otto does it much better than I can possibly do it myself. He’s more amusing and has far more followers than I would get, so I think I might as well leave him to it.” That finally changed in May of this year, when he began posting to Instagram.
Despite containing all of 30 posts to date — mostly photos with family and constituents — Rees-Mogg’s feed has garnered over 32,000 followers. Its popularity exploded very recently, after he added photos of his newborn sixth child, a boy gloriously named Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher Rees-Mogg. Sixtus joins his siblings Peter, Mary, Thomas, Anselm, and Alfred in a lineup that sounds like something straight out of C.S. Lewis or E. Nesbit.
Rees-Mogg’s appearances on British television now regularly cause “trending” reactions on Twitter, and an online “Moggmentum” movement promoting him as a replacement for Prime Minister Theresa May is well underway. Though it still seems unlikely that he will be moving into 10 Downing Street, his current moment in the media sun shows no sign of ending any time soon. During a recent appearance on BBC Question Time, the Labour panelist opened his own remarks with, “It’s good to be on The Jacob Rees-Mogg Show.” Last week, London’s bookmakers cut the odds of Rees-Mogg’s replacing May from 50:1 to 16:1 against, and then from 16:1 to 10:1.
Despite the recent explosion of attention in his homeland, Rees-Mogg remains almost unknown in the United States, particularly compared to his Brexit-backing compatriot Daniel Hannan, who is regularly quoted in the right-leaning American press. This is something of a surprise, given that his classical liberalism is much closer to American conservatism than to traditional English Toryism, and that he has a well-documented love affair with America. He once described himself as a huge fan of the TV show Dallas, including the late Larry Hagman in a short list of people he would have most liked to meet, along with the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. He vacations in the U.S., and has consistently supported the “special relationship” and the trans-Atlantic alliance.
During a 2015 holiday in the states, Rees-Mogg attempted to explain the American electoral system to his constituents with a cogent breakdown of the bizarre early primary season. “The Republicans are flirting with a figure who seems not only unelectable but absurd and monstrous,” he concluded. “Yet he is currently the frontrunner.” But once the general election rolled around, Rees-Mogg — rare in Britain for his fierce criticism of the Obama administration — somewhat surprisingly endorsed Donald Trump, saying, “I would probably be a Republican if I were an American.”
Just so. As Rees-Mogg’s profile rises in Britain, it appears to be well past the time for American conservatives and Republicans to take note of this worthy ally — Etonian Latin, pocket watch, bacon sandwiches, and all.