The acolytes of Jacob Rees-Mogg
01 October 2018 18:20
On a bright New York day in August, fans are jostling for position for autographs as mixed-martial-arts superstar Conor McGregor steps into the sunshine. They shout questions, asking their hero if he has seen another fight that had taken place recently. He quickly greets the young, mostly male, supporters and heads out for his run.
As he is setting off, a picture-book English gentleman dressed in a dark grey double-breasted suit and accompanied by similarly attired children, steps briefly into the scene. Jacob Rees-Mogg walks right next to McGregor but goes entirely unnoticed by the UFC icon. Rees-Mogg barely acknowledges the prizefighter, only registering the commotion as he tries to keep his children close to him. The two men cross paths so quickly you could easily miss it. Many people did not miss it though, and the clip quickly went viral across social media.
A few weeks later, on 24 September, it is a similarly bright morning. On this occasion Rees-Mogg is himself the star of the show, appearing on the panel as the free-market think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, presents its proposals for how Britain could approach Brexit. He arrived at the launch at Whitehall Court and was immediately mobbed by cameras on the doorstep, politely answering questions before turning inside.
Rees-Mogg is having to get used to such attention, as he has become one of the most prominent voices in the Brexit movement and on the Conservative backbenches.
He was initially seen as something of a novelty figure, a relic of times gone by, when he first joined the Commons in 2010. He is still hardly the archetypal modern man – he has six children, the youngest born in July and named Sixtus, but boasts about never having changed a nappy. Yet somehow, in sharp contrast to his fogeyish persona, the MP has successfully used social media to build an army of adoring fans. He now boasts over 55,000 followers on Instagram, 177,000 followers on Twitter, and his Facebook page has garnered 66,000 likes.
I recall the moment when I personally realised that Rees-Mogg had ascended to some higher political plain. At a drinks event, a young Tory in a three-piece suit excitedly told me how Rees-Mogg was the future and was going to save free-market politics. I expressed some scepticism that figures such as Rees-Mogg (or, indeed, this young activist) could build the kind of movement that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has constructed, but it was clear that, once again, something was happening around a backbench MP who had previously been mostly ignored.
Unlike the current Labour leader, however, Rees-Mogg has largely been a party loyalist. He has almost always followed the whip, supporting whichever Conservative leader has been Prime Minister during his time in Parliament.
Brexit has landed Rees-Mogg with the somewhat unexpected position of rebel commander. He has taken on the chairmanship of the re-empowered European Research Group (ERG) in the Conservative party, and placed himself as the defender of Brexit on behalf the public.
It is in this capacity that he sits on the panel at the IEA event. Those alongside him, including former Cabinet ministers David Davis and Theresa Villiers, seem almost deferential to him. At points the panelists confer, leaning into a huddle to decide who will take which questions, with Rees-Mogg seemingly dictating things.
The numbers Rees-Mogg has under his command via the ERG means the Theresa May, embattled as she is, has similarly little choice but to listen. Jonathan Isaby, leading Tory pundit and editor of the website BrexitCentral, outlines the dynamic within the Tory party: ‘When the Government has a working majority in the teens, dependent on the deal with the DUP, and you have a particular group of MPs who among them number 60 or upwards, that group is inevitably going to be quite influential.’
As the Executive Director of the pro-Remain organisation Open Britain, James McGrory, explains: the ERG ‘are powerful because they are very sizeable; anywhere between sort of 40 and 100 depending on how you measure’.
‘That, by definition,’ he adds, ‘can apply massive – and I say internal, but they can do it publicly as well, as they are doing – pressure on a Prime Minister of that party.’
The Conservative MP and Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon agrees. ‘They’re a serious force in politics and you’ve got to them seriously,’ he tells me.
Rees-Mogg himself is reluctant to disclose too much when I speak to him after the IEA event. A tall, lean, man, he towers over me. Although scrupulously polite, he dismisses queries about the ERG, saying: ‘A lot of this is public information already and so there’s not a lot to add on that.’
He has, though, clearly provided dynamic and articulate leadership for the hard-Brexiteers in the Conservatives. His work is enforced by the talents of Steve Baker, who used to Chair the ERG and has returned to the fray, having left government on 8 July in protest at the Chequers deal. He sits at the front of the IEA event, whilst Rees-Mogg is on the panel. His exceptional ability to corral colleagues is widely praised, with Halfon describing him as an ‘unbelievable organiser’.
It is Rees-Mogg himself, however, who has galvanised a new generation of young Conservative activists. After the 2017 General Election, a grassroots campaign in support of Rees-Mogg, called ‘Ready for Rees-Mogg,’ was formed, and quickly shot to prominence. I meet its founder, Sam Frost, a 24-year-old, dynamic, casually dressed activist and digital-marketing business owner, in a trendy Vauxhall cafe with indie music blaring out from the kitchen – hardly the kind of gentleman’s club in which one might expect to find the Rees-Mogg fan club.
He began backing the man he casually refers to as ‘JRM’ or ‘Jacob’ after the Tory’s disastrous 2017 election campaign, having discovered YouTube videos of his speeches. The petition that he started, urging Rees-Mogg to stand for the Conservative party leadership, has now received over 70,000 signatures – and there’s no doubting that Brexit has inspired a lot of those signatures. ‘He’s always stood up for Brexit,’ says Frost.
Indeed, a crucial moment in Rees-Mogg’s rise came on 23 August, when, in a letter to local Conservative Association Chairman, he hit out against the Chequers deal, saying that the Government should ‘chuck Chequers’, and instead seek a Canada-style free-trade agreement with the EU. His intervention confirmed his status as leader of the Brexiteers and was a fatal blow for May. It all but guaranteed that there could be no parliamentary majority for her plan, leaving it in tatters.
Rees-Mogg maintains that ‘there’s very little support in the UK for Chequers. There’s now clearly very little support for Chequers in the European Union and that means the Government needs another approach.’
Such a position has had a huge mobilising effect among the Tory grassroots. Frost tells me: ‘That [letter] was a big moment for him and won a lot of support.’
Isaby says that ‘an increasing number of people on the Eurosceptic right of the party, both inside and outside of Parliament, will be looking to him almost as a kind of political guide on these matters. People genuinely ask “Well, what’s Jacob saying about this?” to help inform their own position.’
Rees-Mogg has undoubtedly taken advantage of politics of the day. McGrory said that ‘with [Boris] Johnson and [Liam] Fox and [Michael] Gove and [Dominic] Raab and [Priti] Patel and everybody else all in government at the time, there was an opening for kind of Brexit purist, if you like, a Conservative on the Tory backbenches who could espouse, for want of a better phrase, true – what they would see as a true – Brexit, and he filled that quite skilfully.’
However, the man himself pushes back against the idea that ERG may be a conduit for his own leadership ambitions. ‘If you look at the people who have come out in the last couple of weeks to say the Prime Minister’s time should come to an end, it’s actually been George Freeman and Tom Tugenhadt, who are about as far from the ERG as you can get,’ he insists. ‘I think tying the ERG into leadership speculation is a mistake. It’s simply not how it works. We’re concentrating on Brexit and getting to the 29th of March and insuring that we have a genuine Brexit.’
It might also seem that this approach to Brexit would make him a natural bedfellow for UKIP. The party’s East of England MEP, Patrick O’Flynn, is less sure. ‘I see him as a died in the wool Tory,’ he says, and, if he were leader, ‘I don’t really see him having an electoral pact or anything like that.’ (Rees-Mogg actually did call for an electoral pact with UKIP in 2013, saying that Nigel Farage should replace Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister, and that such an arrangement ‘would be a better bet for Conservatism and the right wing in British politics’.)
O’Flynn concedes that, were Rees-Mogg to become leader of the Conservatives, ‘he’d be a very appealing person initially to nearly all UKIPpers because of Brexit, and subsequently, because of the Thatcherite economic agenda, to a portion [of them].’
Rees-Mogg’s rise is about more than Brexit, though. Ever since Corbyn ascended somewhat unexpectedly to the Labour leadership, the Conservatives have been looking on with a mixture of horror, mockery and envy.
While most are disgusted at the thuggery and antisemitism engulfing their rivals, there are certainly a large number of Tory MPs and activists who wish Theresa May had been as engaging on the 2017 General Election campaign trail as Corbyn clearly was, and that she had the same ability to build an activist base. Consequently, there is a section of the grassroots that thinks the undoubtedly intelligent and engaging Rees-Mogg could be the answer.
The Tory leadership beauty contest is likely to dominate party conference in Birmingham. The influential website ConservativeHome released a poll on 1 October that showed 7.5 per cent of Tory members back Rees-Mogg to be the next leader. He trails Boris Johnson who is on 30.4 per cent (down from closer to 35 per cent the month before) and Cabinet ministers such as Home Secretary Sajid Javid (18.7 per cent) and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (8.7 per cent). Perhaps slightly worryingly for his fans, Rees-Mogg now also trails ‘Other’ (9 per cent) and has fallen from topping the poll earlier in the year.
Frost is undeterred. He feels that Rees-Mogg is popular with the grassroots thanks largely to his perceived authenticity. ‘Whether you disagree with him or agree with him on issues, you probably have to agree with the fact that he is a very honest man,’ he observes. ‘He believes in fiscal responsibility, traditional values, cuts in immigration. I think that resonates with people who feel kind of left behind by the modern Tory party.’
Fellow activist Josh King feels the same. We talk in Parliament’s glass-fronted Portcullis House office block, where he works, a lanyard covered in Union Jacks draped around his neck. He argues that, under the leaderships of David Cameron and Theresa May, ‘we’ve had what I would call apologetic conservatism, where a lot of the time, certainly on social policies, the party has played into the narrative of the left, which I don’t think has been very successful. I think we paid a lot for that in the last General Election, where we didn’t have a set plan or a set vision to give to the public. That’s where Jacob comes in – because he’s, whether you like him or not, he’s a very clear, principled person. You know what his beliefs are, and he’s proud to stand by his principles even if they are unpopular.’
The more you talk to people about Rees-Mogg, the more you hear the word ‘authenticity’. Rees-Mogg’s parliamentary colleague Robert Halfon thinks that ‘he’s incredibly popular because people like conviction politicians. All the people in politics who are successful at the moment are people who are breaking the mould, who are unusual, who are conviction politicians.’
Which prompts the question: authenticity or affectation? The line is increasingly blurry in modern politics, and it is hard to know on which side Rees-Mogg falls. Around the time he was elected, he began wearing contact lenses, but quickly gave up on them, returning to his traditional thick-lensed, wire-framed glasses. Had he decided that he couldn’t be bothered with the fuss of contacts? Or had he chosen to ignore the advice that image-makers might have given him? Or take the advice of other image-makers?
Either way, it certainly is true that many of those who could contest a future Tory leadership race take a far more liberal worldview. Rees-Mogg has, rather disturbingly, called for abortion to be illegal in all cases, including those of rape and incest, and was steadfastly against equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. It is not hard to imagine a significant chunk of Tory members backing his views while the Parliamentary party looks on in horror.
Ironically, Rees-Mogg’s popularity among the grassroots will probably mean that he never gets on a leadership ballot. With MPs conscious of the fact that he is unlikely to appeal to a broad range of people across the country, and certainly not the types of people that the Conservatives need to win a majority, they will not give him the required nominations to progress through to a ballot of members.
One well-placed source told me: ‘I personally cannot see the circumstances in which he becomes leader of the Conservative Party. If he were on the ballot paper for the members, he’d probably storm it. In the same way that it was said, in 2001, that if Ann Widdecombe had been on the ballot paper she would have stormed it. But she could only get one MP to nominate her and therefore wasn’t even in the MPs’ ballot, let alone the members’ ballot.’
What is clear, though, is that the charming Edwardian gentleman act has won him some friends across the House of Commons, including in the unlikely form of Labour MP Jess Phillips.
In a film for Channel 4 News, the two MPs travelled across the North-East Somerset constituency, bantering, bonding and bickering, as they met the people Rees-Mogg represents. The double-act also took part in a Gogglebox-like segment for Sky News, which showed a genuine affection between them, despite Phillips’ clear horror at almost all of Rees-Mogg’s views.
This cross-party appeal has led some to believe that Rees-Mogg will one day ascend to the Speaker’s chair. ‘He would be an obvious choice to be the next-but-one Speaker of the House,’ says Isaby, although it is clear he would only look to it once Brexit was settled to his satisfaction.
However, Halfon says that he ‘can’t see it in a million years. Maybe when he wants to retire. But I can’t see it because… he wants a platform, on Brexit on all sorts of things. I don’t think he’d want to do it, to be honest.’
For his part, Rees-Mogg has dismissed a lot of the job speculation surrounding him, including by throwing his support behind a potential Boris Johnson premiership. On 5 September he told LBC listeners that ‘two years ago, in the Conservative Party leadership campaign, I supported Boris Johnson because I thought it would deliver Brexit extraordinarily well. I haven’t seen anything that would cause me to change my mind on that.’
The Rees-Mogg activists are certainly not put off by the idea of a Boris premiership, especially if it gets their main man into the Cabinet. Although Frost concedes that ‘the thing about Boris Johnson is, he’d be a capable leader, but I don’t think many people know exactly what it is he believes in, and I think it changes depending on what position he’s running for.’
However, he adds that Boris would ‘be more consistent for conservatism than Theresa May has ever been. I think he’d generally cut taxes for business,’ and so, ‘with something like Chancellor Jacob Rees Mogg, could be somewhat the dream team.”
The state of politics is such that nothing can be discounted. McGrory says that the only way Rees-Mogg’s momentum can be halted is if ‘he loses the support of the ERG and/or is embroiled in some sort of scandal or something that brings him down personally – another issue or some sort of impropriety, which I’ve heard not a whisper of, so I don’t think that’s coming.’
The odds of Rees-Mogg taking the top job continue to tumble, then, and he will no doubt be one of the stars of the show, or at least of the Fringe, at Tory conference this week. He says he is looking forward to it, telling me: ‘The conference will be great. There’s a lot to discuss. Politics is interesting. Party conferences are at their best when politics is interesting.’
That may be so for Rees-Mogg and his acolytes. But for Theresa May it sounds as though that ancient Chinese proverb – may you live in interesting times – might be coming all too true.