Illustration by Tim McDonagh

Can Jacob Rees-Mogg become Britain’s 55th prime minister—and Eton’s 20th?

The Archbishop of Brexit is edging closer towards the leadership of a country which is—unexpectedly, bizarrely but unmistakably—within his grasp
April 17, 2018

Like all winning populist politicians, from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg is a carefully created persona, a semi-permanent work of performance art. His words and deeds are calibrated to perfect that seemingly-spontaneous air that today qualifies an “authentic” figure, who lies outside a despised and discredited mainstream. Anything likely to impinge on the persona must be ruthlessly avoided or abandoned.

It must have been for this reason that the 48-year-old Rees-Mogg, Tory MP for North-East Somerset since 2010, declined to join a fish-flinging escapade on a boat outside parliament in March, in protest at the government agreeing to observe European Union fishing regulations during the Brexit transition. It was not the sentiment he disagreed with—he too believes the UK’s concession betrayed our coastal communities. It is just that the protest didn’t fit his image.

Of course Nigel Farage was on board the plucky red fishing boat, chucking haddock, skate and bass into the swirling waters of the River Thames for the cameras. The stunt worked perfectly for his unruly persona. But Farage’s race is run, and his chances of statesmanship pretty much nil.

Rees-Mogg plays a different part, sensing a grander future. He was, he declared in his curvaceous vowels, “not a fish thrower” nor about to change his name to “Captain Haddock.” Such theatrics would not fit his brand of calm and courteous pronouncements delivered in stiff collars and double-breasted suits. Instead, from the solid footing of the Embankment, he piggy-backed on the publicity generated by Farage, whom he has succeeded as the Leaver Nation’s darling. There he stood, delivering his courtly analysis on all matters fishy, following up with a pun-filled tweet, which garnered thousands of likes. Thus it was that his management of this stunt edged Rees-Mogg another step closer towards the leadership of a party and country which is—unexpectedly, bizarrely but unmistakably—suddenly within his grasp.

It is less than two years since the “peasants’ revolt” of the Brexit vote did for Britain’s 19th Etonian prime minister, but the bookies now tell us that the most likely next occupant of No 10 would be the 20th. (As I write, Rees-Mogg is 4/1 as the next PM with Ladbrokes, which puts him not only ahead of the rest of the Tory field, but of the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn). There are clearly differences between David Cameron and Rees-Mogg, but these run in the opposite direction from what you might expect from a disgruntled country that wanted to give its establishment a kicking.

Whereas Cameron’s years at school had mixed spliffs with the Smiths, Jacob Rees-Mogg looked then—and now—like the sort of fellow who’d have been quite happy wearing his Eton collar and top hat in the summer holidays. A country that closed its ears to Cameron because he seemed too out of touch, is—if Ladbrokes is right—about to embrace the member for the 18th century. So how on Earth did we get here?

Has time come for the neo-Jacobites?

Eton itself is a good place to start. “Rees-Mogg was powerful at school and just the same as he is now,” recalls one contemporary. The son of the long-term Times editor, William Rees-Mogg, he is remembered as being “unique.” He “made rousing speeches in favour of the Queen but made us laugh so everybody turned up… and stamped their feet. It really annoyed school’s few left-wingers.”

Learning how to entertain a thousand privileged teenagers appears to have prepared Rees-Mogg for charming a wider public. The debating society mind-set has certainly shaped his thinking. Part of the appeal of a pure or clean Brexit is, surely, that its exposition lends itself to ringing phrases, so different from the scrappy rhetoric required to explain the messy compromises of life within the EU or a softer exit. And Rees-Mogg is an old hand at public meetings, sounding relaxed and reasonable even when the content is incendiary; disagreeing with opponents in a debonair manner, even when they become rude. He has real wit and exquisite comic timing. Above all—and here is the trick in an age that venerates “authenticity” above any other political virtue—Rees-Mogg never appears to be pretending. Even as he endlessly refines his performance, he is unmistakably who he is.

Cameron was caught out forgetting which football team he claimed to support (was it West Ham or Aston Villa? He didn’t know either). That wouldn’t happen to Rees-Mogg, because his whole shtick precludes feigning “man of the people” interests. He embraced his background, and recognised early that he couldn’t—and wouldn’t—change. “Poshness” is not something he sought to drop with his consonants; instead, he made it his brand.

In many respects, the playbook Rees-Mogg is working to is the one deployed over the past decade by Boris Johnson, who played the role of entertainer at Eton five years before him. Johnson, too, is untroubled by coming across as a toff, reaches for grandiloquent phrases and wins crowds through flashes of knowing self-deprecation. When these sort of arch-showmen laugh at themselves—such as Rees-Mogg’s quip “I was young once, I wasn’t very good at it”—we instinctively imagine that they are a good sport and somehow must be worth listening to. Both men use oratorical flourishes to evade giving hard answers, and—to a remarkable extent—tittering journalists allow them to get away with it. Now, however, the wider public has begun to tire of Johnson’s act. He is currently a more distant 10/1 as the next PM.

To understand how Rees-Mogg has upstaged him, it might be less instructive to examine his Conservative rivals than to look at Jeremy Corbyn. If Corbyn is the original bearded lefty, then, as one commentator has put it, Rees-Mogg is a “taxi driver’s idea of a flawless Conservative.” In an age when purity counts for more than anything else, here are two primary colour politicians—“you might not like ‘em, but you know where you stand.”

The parallels go further. Corbyn was propelled from obscurity by striking a chord with the party grassroots who these days hold the final say on the leadership in both parties, over the objection of most colleagues in parliament. Rees-Mogg may not exude the same earnest moral purpose, but both men pretend they don’t play the media game, appearing as unreconstructed stick-in-the-muds who have chosen unbending principles over passing political fashions and power. While Rees-Mogg (elected in 2010) cannot match Corbyn (elected 1983) for the length of his spell in the wilderness, he will potentially—much like Corbyn—arrive at the top unsullied by office, or for that matter political responsibility of any kind. Most politicians first enter public consciousness as a middle-ranking minister squirming on a Newsnight sofa, explaining some problem that their masters have landed them in. But this is not the kind of experience that either of these two men have been tarnished by.

The Rees-Mogg act appears more authentic than most because he was working on it before he had any obvious careerist motivation. Whereas Johnson conceded to friends he had “veered all over the place like a shopping trolley,” penning Telegraph columns for both Leave and Remain before making his scheming and fateful dash for glory, there was never any doubt about which way Rees-Mogg would go.

Back in 2012, when he contrived to utter the word “floccinaucinihilipilification,” an Eton invention, on the green benches, he cannot—surely—have seen any higher purpose in that jape than amusement. He was establishing himself as an eccentric, not a potential prime minister. Whatever his private, late-night fantasies might have been, there was no reason for Rees-Mogg to believe that he would be more than a colourful Westminster character. And, when initially light-hearted chatter about “Moggmentum” first picked up last year, the man himself laughed it off. By this spring, however, he was submitting to the best part of an hour of questioning by Nick Robinson about, among other things, what Moggtopia would look like. He used the interview to explain why he had as much capacity to empathise with the ordinary voter as people who had lived more ordinary lives.

The “Archbishop of Brexit” may like to portray himself as the polar opposite of a slick PR man, but he does have the Sun brought to him at his breakfasting table every morning. Despite presenting himself as the honourable member for the 18th century, baffled by his mobile phone, he is a master at social media. He records podcasts for the ConservativeHome website, which they call “Moggcasts” and he calls “gramophone editions.” He is also an expert in the art of Instagram: his feed, followed by more than 50,000 people, is full of cute family photos and ironic postings of Private Eye and Daily Mash articles mocking him (“Jacob Rees-Mogg sent from 1923 to save the Conservative Party,” reads one).

None of this happens by accident, but what—beyond self-publicity—is his purpose? Well, we all know he is Europhobe, and at home only serves English food. “Smoked salmon is allowed,” reports one visitor, “but never with something ‘exotic’ like onions or sour cream.” We know, too, he is an ultra-conservative Catholic, with the antediluvian views you’d expect from a father of six (Peter Theodore Alphege, Mary Anne Charlotte Emma, Thomas Wentworth Somerset Dunstan, Anselm Charles Fitzwilliam, Alfred Wulfric Leyson Pius, Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher) who is unembarrassed by never having changed a nappy. At his wedding to Helena de Chair at Canterbury Cathedral in 2007, by special arrangement with the Archbishop, Mass was in ecclesiastical Latin.

Fewer, however, would probably guess who Rees-Mogg turns to for tips on how to promote his right-wing agenda in the digital age. At a meeting last November, he hooked up with Donald Trump’s sinister former henchman and “brain,” Steve Bannon, the long-time mover behind the alt-right Breitbart News, and a self-proclaimed disciple of that historic populist Benito Mussolini.

One former cabinet minister, anxious about the Rees-Mogg phenomenon, told me that he “has found out how to drown out moderate voices.” One of the new ways he is managing to do that—in public, at least—is to moderate his own. The man who described state school pupils as “potted plants,” food banks as an “uplifting” demonstration of philanthropy and declared that John Prescott’s accent characterised him as an “oaf,” appears to have had something of an epiphany. Last month he revealed that he believes in the NHS as the “most efficient” way of providing health care for those unable to provide for themselves. For the same reason, he said he backed state-provided welfare and education.
“Despite presenting himself as the honourable member for the 18 th century, baffled by his mobile phone, he is a master of social media”
Still, you didn’t have to listen that hard to his answers to grasp that, in his eyes, the welfare state is just a safety net for those who don’t have other options. Rees-Mogg, of course, has never had cause to rely upon a public service of any description. Having grown up in a succession of stately homes, he spent the years between Oxford and the House of Commons as an asset manager, becoming a multi-millionaire in the process. His firm, Somerset Capital Management, now looks after a fund worth $9.6bn. Rees-Mogg can also sleep easy, knowing that his wife reputedly stands to inherit £45m from her mother Lady Juliet Tadgell, heir to the Fitzwilliam fortune.

If there is a Mogg social policy, it can probably be summed up in the words of the Victorian hymn: “The rich man in his castle/the poor man at his gate/ God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” And that is not only because of his pedigree, but also because, like Bannon, he believes that “everybody is individualistic” and that “individuals make better decisions for themselves and their families than the clever people in Whitehall and we should remove obstacles in their way.” Brexit, perhaps, will allow him to sweep some of those obstacles out of the way, but the question remains: to what end?

Dive deeper into this entertaining eccentric and things only get more disturbing. In 2013 Rees-Mogg was guest of honour at, and gave a speech to, the annual dinner of Traditional British Group, which describes itself as “the home of the disillusioned patriot.” Embroilment with this Powellite sect, which wants to return black people to “their natural homelands,” would have been a career death-wish in the modernising years of the Tory Party. He later insisted that he had been “shocked” to hear of their stance and that he would “disassociate” himself from the group. But Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP, is one of many members of the party who has concluded that while Rees-Mogg’s “manners are perfumed, his opinions are poisoned.”

It is a sign of turbulent times that such a mistake has not killed off Rees-Mogg’s career. Nor has the idea of being at once the

champion of the people and, at the same time, a cartoon toff whose nanny drives him around on the canvassing trail in an old Bentley. “Oh no,” he quips once again in role-play. “That’s all wrong. A Bentley would never do for such matters. It was a Mercedes.”

And we go along with it, the media inflate it and a star is born. No matter that most Brits would be appalled by his views—he is against abortion, for instance, even in cases of rape—if they only paused to digest them. But just as Johnson for so long got away with everything because he was good ol’ Boris or Bozza so Rees-Mogg is Moggy or the Moggster.

He is the embodiment of English exceptionalism—or as the Economist recently described him, the “blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit.” Such a profile counts for more than a roster of concrete achievements that actually improve people’s lives. Another ex-cabinet minister, when reached for comment about Rees-Mogg, spluttered: “All this attention gives him more credibility and I really don’t want to help with that!”

Listen to Sonia Purnell on the 28th edition of Prospect's Headspace podcast

That a newly credible Rees-Mogg has also acquired power from the backbenches is plain to see. Since the start of the year he has chaired the band of hardline Brexiteer MPs known as the European Research Group (ERG) or, as his critics dub it, the Elect Rees-Mogg Group. This shadowy but influential cabal is described by the Times as “the most aggressive political cadre in Britain today.” Its tentacles appear to be everywhere; its members include multiple ministers. “They’re like Maoist revolutionaries,” says the former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. “They don’t care how many bodies they sacrifice along the way or how much hardship is inflicted on people in the long march.”

Even if he has become an unlikely revolutionary, Rees-Mogg is in no rush to put his head over the barricades and have it shot off. The politeness conceals cunning. In February, he was one of 62 signatories of a letter from the ERG to the prime minister. Those in the know say that he was the driving force behind a list of demands for no compromise on Brexit dressed up as polite “suggestions.” Yet when the letter was leaked, he deftly avoided personal flak by means of having had someone else be the principal signatory. Some Tories describe a “recklessly stupid ransom note”—but Downing Street has been forced to dance to its tune. Meanwhile, Rees-Mogg is emerging as an increasingly skilled and audacious politician. “He’s foxy and will go for the jugular when he needs to,” observes Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome.

Critics say the ERG’s antics, which have propelled Rees-Mogg to the top spot in the ConservativeHome leadership poll for the last three months in a row, will tear the party apart. Plenty of MPs are terrified. “You would only elect him leader of the Conservative Party if you didn’t want to win an election ever again,” one grandee has said. Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen have publicly stated they would leave the party if Rees-Mogg became leader, Allen explaining that he goes against everything she wants to present her party as being. A former cabinet minister added that “he can’t reach wide sections of the public and I certainly wouldn’t draft him into a marginal constituency. He’s appalling on human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ issues.” Nobody of a liberal persuasion is likely to disagree. Another, former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, laid into him in a recent debate at the Cambridge Union and avoided him altogether at dinner.
“He was guest of honour at the Traditional British Group, which wants to return black people to ‘their natural homelands’”
Within parliament, even his fans in the ERG concede he does not have the unifying qualities needed in a leader to win more than 40 per cent of the national vote. One ministerial member put it: “He has no qualifications for the job. He is not a unifying figure.” And it is also hard to think of another occasion when a backbencher has sprung straight into No 10.

Goodman, with his ear to the Tory ground, believes Rees-Mogg is aware of the formidable obstacles to his becoming leader. If Theresa May were to fall, perhaps through a no-confidence vote, Conservative MPs would whittle down the field of hopefuls to two names, which would be put to the party at large. He “knows that his colleagues in parliament would never put him in the final two,” believes Goodman. But there really aren’t many known knowns left in today’s politics. Tory MPs may have stitched things up in the past—rallying around May in 2016, and Michael Howard in 2003—but riven by Brexit, they would struggle to coordinate in the same way today. And if the stitch-up came unstuck, Rees-Mogg’s popularity with the 70,000 or so members of the aging Conservative Party would put him in pole position to win the party vote.

The remaining moderates in the rank and file pray it never comes to that. “He is just too off the wall for general appeal,” says one respected constituency chairman. “Moderate MPs are too afraid of the right to speak their minds and Rees-Mogg and the ERG are making that worse. If he gets any further I will tear up my party membership.” Goodman also believes that his hardline Catholicism restricts his national selling power—“how would it play in Walsall, for instance? Or, for that matter, with female or gay voters anywhere?” It’s a fair question, but then Trump’s reactionary views and abusive behaviour did not stop white American women voting for him. A newly-ambitious Rees-Mogg has already reacted to this potential stumbling block, saying that free votes should settle those moral issues where he is out on the fringe.

What would Britain look like if Jacob Rees-Mogg becomes prime minister? Based on what we know so far, it could lead to tightly controlled public spending, lower taxes and, at the very least, a screeching halt to any sort of social progress on gender, sexuality or pretty well anything else. It’s worth remembering that Somerset CM is managed via subsidiaries in the tax havens of the Cayman Islands and Singapore, an arrangement Rees-Mogg has defended by saying: “I do not believe people have any obligation to pay more tax than the law requires.”

One further clue might come from the father he so admired, who ended up as a life peer. Two decades ago, William wrote a manifesto for an obscure form of apocalyptic capitalism called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. Co-authored by James Dale Davidson, who specialised in advising the rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe, it has become something of a minor cult classic.

One of the book’s premises is that liberal democracies operate like criminal cartels, forcing citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for welfare, hospitals and schools, and that they will consequently fail. It suggests a “cognitive elite” should then seize power to create corporate city-states and redesign governments to suit their own ends. If son follows father in this belief as in so many others, it represents a scary endgame for the Rees-Mogg individualist creed.