Rees-Mogg has downplayed the rumours of a leadership challenge. But recent history teaches us to never say neverby Asa Bennett / August 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Next month, the Conservatives will be gathering for their first party conference since the election. Many would have thought earlier this year that it would be an occasion for unalloyed triumph, with scores of new MPs joining their midst, but Theresa May’s snap election gamble spectacularly misfired. Instead, the Prime Minister will have to try and project a sense of direction while her colleagues make their auditions to succeed her.
Some have not had to wait to get to Manchester in order to be speculated about as potential leadership material. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the backbencher famed for his genteel manner and pin-sharp Savile Row suits, has reportedly been “sounding out” friends about whether he should prepare to throw his hat into the ring.
Given the opportunity to rubbish the idea that he was considering such a thing, he didn’t deny it, but merely suggested he wouldn’t win. “If I threw my hat in the ring, my hat would be thrown back at me pretty quickly,” he told the Sunday Times. “It is improbable bordering on impossible,” he told the Mail on Sunday. He has revelled in the spotlight, describing the speculation as “flattering,” but insisted that he did not “take it seriously.”
Rees-Mogg sounded more explicit in today’s Telegraph, claiming his desire was to be “servant of the Conservative Party, not its master”—but then went on to set out at length his “principled foundation” on which he believed the next Conservative manifesto should be based. This “Moggifesto”, as his fans will be swift to dub it, is a clear sign that he is prepared to think big about the future.
Many have raised an eyebrow over Mr Rees-Mogg’s potential as a leadership candidate, myself included. “A forty-something biological age is not much use in tackling the generational challenge, if your manner makes you sound more like a one-hundred-and-forty-something,” I wrote previously in Prospect. Let’s consider though the chief bar on his potential rise taking place, as he highlights himself, his electability.
Rees-Mogg could emerge as the perfect standard-bearer for those who want a break with Mayism
The Tory leadership is a two-stage process, with MPs whittling down the list of runners so that the membership can vote between the final two. Mr Rees-Mogg has won respect in the Commons for his eloquent, often lucid, contributions and for his inimitable knowledge of its history. “Jacob is very talented, very sound and possesses a razor-sharp mind,” one senior Brexiteer tells me. “He has much more talent than many current ministers.”
What policy meat would he have to tempt Conservative backbenchers and members? As a lifelong Eurosceptic, he can convince those who thought Theresa May was too wishy-washy on Brexit. He is also more traditionally Conservative on economics, calling on his party today to “back the free market.” (By contrast, Mrs May’s former adviser Nick Timothy has railed in the Telegraph against “free market fundamentalism.”) Mr Rees-Mogg could emerge as the perfect standard-bearer for those who want a break with Mayism.
Liberal Tories have reacted in horror to the prospect of the Old Etonian taking over, with MP Heidi Allen already threatening to leave the party if he does. David Cameron, another OE, was sensitive to voters holding his class against him. Yet Boris Johnson also went to Eton—but he managed to regularly steal Mr Cameron’s thunder at party conference with his typical ebullience and showing he was comfortable in his own skin. In that same vein, Mr Rees-Mogg’s proudly foppish Bentley-driving act can thrive.
“Who knows?”, one Brexiteer MP says to me. “The party is in an odd mood.”
Politicians are ambitious by nature, but they tend to restrain themselves with an awareness of their limitations. Rees-Mogg did try to take on the chairmanship of the Commons’ Treasury Select Committee, in a clear sign that he hungers to wield influence, but he was denied the job by Labour MPs voting for his Europhile rival Nicky Morgan. His diffidence towards the idea of him succeeding Theresa May sounds sincerely meant, but that doesn’t mean he can be ruled out of contention. “Who knows?”, one Brexiteer MP says to me. “The party is in an odd mood. Let’s see what happens at conference.”
Michael Gove previously went to great lengths to deny any suggestion that he could go for the top job. He infamously offered to sign a piece of parchment in his own blood making clear that he didn’t want the leadership. No-one compelled him to do that, but he was no less keen last June to make clear that he didn’t want anyone to dream of him in charge. “Count me out”, he pleaded, adding: “whatever posters you put up on your wall, do not put one up of me.”
Yet within weeks, he was delivering a treatise on why he felt it was time he should be Prime Minister, despite doing “almost everything” possible not to be a candidate.
Mr Gove’s campaign may have ended in failure, but there is one lesson to be drawn from it in considering whether Jacob Rees-Mogg is a contender for the crown: never underestimate the ambition of a well-spoken bespectacled Conservative.