Magazine | January 28, 2019, Issue

The Outsiders’ Insider

Rees-Mogg without his top hat (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexiteer and upper-crust rebel

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Con­servative member of Parliament for a district in Somerset, England, told me over the phone that his heroes of the year are “those members of government who resigned because they thought Brexit was going the wrong way and put their commitment to Brexit above the short-term benefit of their careers.” From the faint sound of children in the background — and a fatherly “Shhh” — I gather he is speaking to me from his weekday townhouse, purchased earlier this year for 5 million pounds and located in Old Westminster quarters, where Churchill plotted against Chamberlain.

Rees-Mogg is an ardent Euroskeptic who favors a clean break with the EU. When Parliament is in session, he can be found on the back benches, slinging grenades at Prime Minister Theresa May on account of her “incompetent” Brexit negotiations. But this morning, a few days before Christmas, he has been busy trying to get a video of Mary Poppins — “the old one, not the new” — to work for one of his six children. In the new movie, Mary Poppins returns to look after the now-grown Michael and Jane Banks — and Michael’s children as well. Which is rather like the Rees-Mogg nanny, who, having looked after Jacob in childhood, now tends to his brood of six.

“It’s wonderful for my children to have this great continuity. And they love asking Nanny about what I did when I was little. She has an endless supply of stories — the things that I did that might be better forgotten.”

Can I hear one?

“Certainly not!”

But no matter — they have not been forgotten.

At age twelve, Rees-Mogg was photographed reading the Financial Times in front of a typewriter with two large teddy bears in the background. As a child of Lord William Rees-Mogg, who was the editor of the Times of London from 1967 to 1981, Jacob had attended the annual general meeting of the General Electric Company, of which his father was a board member. There, he complained that the company’s dividends were unacceptably low. Months later, after giving numerous interviews, he wrote to the BBC threatening “legal advice” if their “debt of £18” was not paid within ten days. “I hope it does not come to that for I have no desire to prosecute the BBC,” the twelve-year-old boy wrote.

“I don’t think that was my proudest moment, in retrospect,” he says, with an awkward laugh. But clearly his audaciousness persisted. Sir David Wing-cheung Tang once recalled a lunch with the former prime minister, Lady Margaret Thatcher, at which a “precocious” twentysomething Rees-Mogg asked “Lady T . . . about having to surrender Hong Kong.” The formidable Thatcher “slapped Jacob down with a belligerent reply,” but that wasn’t enough to stop him from revering Britain’s first female prime minister.

After making millions as a financial investor in London, Rees-Mogg won his seat in the North East Somerset district in the 2010 general election with a 5,000-vote margin of victory. Since then, in both the 2015 and 2017 elections, he has roughly doubled his margin of victory. But he hasn’t always had good political fortune. He campaigned in Central Fife, Scotland, in 1997 — the year the Con­servatives lost all their Scottish seats.

“The number of voters in my favor dropped as soon as I opened my mouth,” he says. Rees-Mogg has a distinctively posh English accent, the sort you’d expect given his education at Eton College and Oxford University. Though eligible candidates can run anywhere in the U.K., Rees-Mogg was laughed off the doorsteps of otherwise friendly locals and was almost beaten up by one unfriendly local.

No doubt he learned from the experience. Rees-Mogg is just as much himself in the Commons as out of it, wearing his trademark double-breasted suits and on special occasions — such as Lady Thatcher’s funeral — a top hat. Accordingly, he has been nicknamed “Member for the 18th Century.”

Although Rees-Mogg’s brand is emblematic of the English class system (his father was a lord; his wife’s grand­father, an earl), he does have something of the American spirit about him. His maternal grandmother was a New Yorker who in 1920 traveled to England, where she met his grandfather, whom she soon married. “There is a little bit of American drive and get-up-and-go attitude that the Rees-Moggs and the Moggs before them had slightly lacked as we slumbered gently in Somerset,” he tells me.

Certainly “Get up and go” has been a crucial part of his Brexit messaging. In 2018, he was elected chairman of the European Research Group, the Euro­skeptic cabal whose Tory MP members remain opposed to Britain’s membership in the EU and to May’s “soft Brexit” proposals as well.  

“I think the advantages of Brexit are absolutely enormous economically be­cause we will no longer have the constraints that we have with the European Union, and we won’t be subject to the EU’s regulatory system that is anti-enterprise and anti–free market,” he says.

But his proposed Brexit — leaving the customs union, the single market, and the European Court of Justice, and calling the EU’s bluff on its insistence that Britain remain in the customs union to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — has won him many political enemies. The chancellor of the Exchequer has called him an “extremist.” Anna Soubry, fellow Tory MP, said she’d leave the Conservative party if he became leader. Philip Collins wrote in the Times that the entire Rees-Mogg team ought to be “taken out and shot.”

The rebukes leave him unfazed. The chancellor of the Exchequer “gets all its forecasts wrong,” he says. “I don’t think anybody takes them seriously anymore.” As for the accusation that he is a far-right, populist ideologue? “Well, that’s what you expect of far-left newspapers. The Guardian, the New York Times have this worldview of the metropolitan elite that is not shared by normal people.” He adds that, since 70 percent of Conservative voters backed Leave, what the Tories need to do is “deliver Brexit thoroughly and then unite.”

But, in pushing to deliver Brexit, Rees-Mogg has been anything but a force for unity. So far, he has condemned the prime minister’s Brexit deal, voted against her in the recent Conservative-party confidence vote and urged others to do the same, and suggested that her slim victory in the vote was a “terrible result” and that she ought to go to the queen at once and resign. On December 17, however, he surprised political reporters by pledging his support to the prime minister in the Commons. Why the U-turn?

“I lost the [confidence] vote. And in the end if you lose the vote you’ve got to accept that. And it’s very interesting if you look at the Labour party — the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, but once he stayed, they recognized that he’s the leader and they had to back him. And that’s the position that I’m in.”

Some think, however, that Rees-Mogg’s recent support for the prime minister is merely gamesmanship — a ploy to run down the clock so that Britain leaves with no deal, because May’s deal is unlikely to get through the Commons and Britain is scheduled to leave on March 29. Rees-Mogg is clearly not alone in his belief that the country would be fine in the event of no deal. The former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, agrees, as does the economist and Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan, co-author of Clean Brexit: Why Leaving the EU Still Makes Sense. Polls also show that most Tory-party members support “no deal” at this juncture. However, the same cannot be said for Parliament, which on January 8 passed an amendment to limit the treasury’s “no deal” preparations. Though this measure isn’t enough to prevent a “no deal” Brexit in itself, it does suggest that there is a potential majority in the House of Commons to block Brexit by more drastic means.

Beyond Brexit, though, might Rees-Mogg be a contender to succeed Theresa May? During the 2017 general-election campaign, his prospects looked promising. An online grassroots movement nicknamed “Moggmentum” — ironically inspired by the left-wing organization Momentum, which supports Jeremy Corbyn — gained considerable traction in promoting the idea of Prime Minister Rees-Mogg. Meanwhile, one poll tipped Rees-Mogg as the favorite to succeed May, and another found 60 percent in favor of Rees-Mogg, compared with just 12 percent for Boris Johnson (who is typically the most popular among Tory-party members, if not in Parliament).

Rees-Mogg cast the suggestion off as “very flattering and good fun” but added that he is “not quite vain enough to believe it.” After all, he’s a mere backbencher who has never held a senior position in government. But the bigger issue is that he is far too controversial — or rather, too conservative — to win the backing of most Conservative MPs.

For example, months after the Moggmentum campaign, Rees-Mogg made himself unelectable in the eyes of the liberal elite when he told Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain that he opposed abortion in all circumstances and, furthermore, subscribes to the Catholic Church’s definition of marriage (i.e., one man, one woman).

One journalist said that his views were “so traditional that they no longer can be considered part of the normal left–right continuum of British politics.” But Rees-Mogg thinks that such people would be surprised if they only stepped outside their bubble. Many ordinary people reacted positively to his unplanned religious expressions, he told me, whether or not they agreed with him.

It’s easy to see why. His answers demonstrate integrity — a willingness to answer a difficult question honestly, which is rare for a politician. But the treatment of him also reveals, once again, the contemptuous and illiberal attitudes of Britain’s ruling elite. Hence the Rees-Mogg paradox: He is both an upper-class social conservative and a revolutionary; he is both of the establishment and against it.

The political journalist Matthew Parris, referring to Brexit, wrote in the Times of London last week, “We’re doing it because the voters asked us to. We do not, however, believe the voters reached the right decision.” And since Brexit is such a calamity, surely it’s not too late for Parliament to block it altogether? The title of his essay reveals his preference: “MPs Must Be Brave and Tell Us We Were Wrong.” Parris is merely being honest about the beliefs of many anti-Brexit Remainers, for whom democratic results are worth sticking to only when they uphold the correct view. Rees-Mogg and his band of “zealots,” they believe, are not just incorrect but poisonous.

But one wonders whether Parris’s grand “we” — i.e., “we the elite” — really do know better. Were the voters wrong, or did they simply make a decision that “we” didn’t like? According to YouGov, a U.K.-based data-analytics firm, Rees-Mogg is one of the most popular Conservative politicians in the country — Boris Johnson, another Brexiteer, being the most popular. Could the key to his popularity be that voters trust him? And, more important, that he trusts them?

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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