Not so long ago, though it seems difficult to imagine now, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a largely inconsequential politician. Those who had heard of him found his traditionalist persona amusing, there were a couple of memorable appearances on Have I Got News For You, but that’s as far as it went. The “Right Honourable Member for the 18th Century” was not thought of as someone who wielded real political power in the Conservative Party, let alone the country.
Yet today he is one of the most significant figures on the Tory benches. As Theresa May’s Brexit vision has diluted in the face of reality, the MP for North Somerset has carved out a role as her fiercest pro-Brexit critic. Rees-Mogg leads the European Research Group, which is stacked with hardline Tory Leavers. To his supporters he is the guardian of true Brexit.
The Conservative Home leadership poll frequently ranks him the members’ favourite and, though it terrifies his critics, the millionaire old Etonian and son of the long-serving Times editor William Rees-Mogg is now thought to be a leading candidate for the top job—if a vacancy comes up.
Though soft spoken, he is one of Westminster’s sharpest political operators. When I caught him on the phone recently, Rees-Mogg had just forced a government climbdown on the trade bill, locking in a harder exit from Europe and prompting an exasperated Anna Soubry MP to announce that he is now “running our country.”
There were endless points we could have begun on. How will Brexit end? Will it tear apart his party? But I went for the leadership question. If the opportunity did arise, would Rees-Mogg ever think about actually running the country? Would he throw his hat in the ring?
In the past he has flatly ruled this out, but would not do so when we spoke. “It’s very flattering but I wouldn’t take it seriously,” he first said of the speculation, speaking slowly. I pressed him further and asked him to flat deny it. He refused. “I think we’re in the situation that we’re in.”
It is not often Rees-Mogg, a composed man, squirms. But I sensed a little discomfort on the other end of the line. He was keen to move on.
What about the Chequers deal? Theresa May has softened her Brexit stance significantly since coming to office and the plan thrashed out in her country retreat earlier this month was the next logical step: it would keep Britain in close alignment with the continent. We would not have much say on the rules and would likely have to accept the free movement of people.
This means driving a bus through Brexiteer red lines: it is “Brexit in name only,” Rees-Mogg responded immediately when I asked him about it. It is “quite right to target the PM and No 10” with criticism, as “that is where responsibility lies.” The problem is that “the government has essentially been weak.” It should have stood up for itself and demanded a better deal.
There is no guarantee the EU will accept the current offering: in fact, it is likely to be watered down still further in negotiation. But if an eventual agreement is reached the Commons will have a vote on it.
This is where the problems really start, as both Remainers and Brexiteers could object. “Can I guarantee that I will vote in favour of a Bill based on Chequers?” Rees Mogg asked, his voice quickening, “No, I can’t give any such assurance.”
This raises the crucial question of what would happen if the deal is defeated in parliament. No one really knows the answer. It is difficult to see how the government could survive, if its central purpose was flat rejected. Another general election would surely be on the cards. Perhaps even a second referendum.
[su_pullquote]“Can I guarantee that I will vote in favour of a Bill based on Chequers? No, I can’t give any such assurance”[/su_pullquote]
The future is uncertain indeed, but we were getting ahead of ourselves. One issue in particular has caused real disquiet this week: the question of the Brexit department. In the aftermath of Chequers, David Davis could not reconcile himself to the government’s deal and quit. His replacement was Dominic Raab, another hardline Leaver, which was “an apparently reassuring step,” said Rees-Mogg.
But shortly afterwards the government made an admission. Theresa May would, it conceded via a ministerial statement, take back control of the negotiations. Raab, the Brexit department and by extension the Leave camp would be sidelined.
Was this a betrayal? According to Rees-Mogg, the PM has taken away most of Raab’s department “and has left him essentially doing something that was done by a parliamentary under-secretary until 10 days ago. He’s basically got his whole department to do Steve Baker’s job.” (Baker was a minister beneath Davis.)
Still, “I think very highly of Dominic... I think he has first-class abilities.”
What about another Brexiteer big beast: Boris Johnson? “I backed Boris two years ago and I have never regretted my decision to back him,” Rees-Mogg said. For now the Leavers are sticking together.
We were running out of time on the phone but there was another point I was keen to discuss. Hardline Leavers have always insisted that Britain could manage with a no Brexit deal. Rees Mogg told me the Chequers deal “has put the odds up” that it happens.
But could we really cope? It would require “some technical adjustments,” and so the government is right to contingency plan, he said. But “I wouldn’t be frightened of that.” The truth is that “leaving on WTO terms is by no means the worst deal… It is a very well regulated, well-established system and it would save us £40bn to boot.” He was referring to the Brexit divorce bill. This is for outstanding liabilities and Britain has already committed to payment.
Expert consensus is that a no deal would threaten to ground planes and cause chaos at ports. There is also the problem of the Irish border. Rees-Mogg told me this last one is a red herring. “I think it’s being used quite cleverly by the EU to try and keep the UK in the single market and customs union. And I don’t know whether Downing Street has fallen for it because they are failing to be robust, or whether it fits in with that the government wants to do anyway.” Beneath the façade, beneath the plum accent, he was delivering firm criticism indeed.
[su_pullquote]Dominic Raab has "basically got his whole department to do Steve Baker’s job"[/su_pullquote]
One point on which everyone agrees is that Brexit poses fundamental questions for the Tory Party. Debate is raging between different factions over how best to implement the referendum. Remainers believe a soft exit will protect jobs, but if all that is delivered is Brexit in name only, “we’ll shed votes,” Rees-Mogg said.
“There is no good political outcome for Conservatives from ‘Brino.' It doesn’t satisfy the Remainers, you’re not going to have Remainers flocking back to the Conservative Party... On the other hand it will alienate Leavers.” The only answer is “to deliver Brexit properly.”
There is a huge deal of uncertainty swirling round in British politics and it’s impossible to predict the future. But I am not convinced that Rees-Mogg is right when he says hard Brexit will keep Tory voters on side. An abrupt departure is very likely to cause a great economic shock, while a no deal could result in anarchy. Rees-Mogg is a charming politician and, unsurprisingly given his roots, a confident media performer. He also has a deep grasp of the issues. But the truth is that if Brexit causes damage, the party that delivered it will be punished severely.
He sees it differently. “The government will look very silly if it reinvigorates its method of project fear,” he said simply. “The opportunities from Brexit come from being free to do our own thing, not being shackled to a failed economic model.” I wasn’t going to change his mind now; Rees-Mogg has dedicated his entire political career in pursuit of his cause.
And while it may not be the kind of departure he would like, on 29th March next year, he will have in large part succeeded.