Underrated: Jacob Rees-Mogg

The Conservative Party’s most loyal rebel

UK Politics Underrated
Jacob Rees-Mogg: The Conservative Party's most loyal rebel (illustration by Michael Daley)

Jacob Rees-Mogg is a thoroughly modern Conservative backbencher, although at first sight — with his fogeyish manner, fondness for quoting Latin and old-fashioned double-breasted suits — the Honourable Member for North East Somerset may give the impression of having stepped straight out of the 1950s. (In fact, he was born in 1969). His appearances as the butt of the panel’s jokes about Tory toffs on the BBC’s Have I Got News for You do nothing to dispel this notion. It is further reinforced by reports of Rees-Mogg taking his nanny, Veronica Crook — who now helps to look after his own four children and has worked for the family for 47 years — canvassing with him both in his current constituency and in his earlier doomed attempts to be elected for Central Fife in 1997 and The Wrekin in 2001.

Yet Rees-Mogg is in fact a forward-looking liberal Conservative, albeit a profoundly Eurosceptic one. He is comfortable with modern Britain and does not hark back to some mythical golden age.

Too many of today’s Identikit politicians have moved straight from university to being a political researcher and special adviser, with an interlude of a few years in lobbying or public affairs, before entering parliament in their early thirties. This is not the case with Rees-Mogg.

Still only 40 when entering parliament in 2010 for his marginal seat, he has had a successful career in finance. He worked for Rothschild Investment Management and then in Hong Kong for Lloyd George Management (set up by the Welsh Wizard’s great-grandson Robert) before in 2007 setting up, with three others, Somerset Asset Management, an employee-owned London- and Singapore-based emerging markets fund with $5.5 billion under management. Rees-Mogg is still actively involved in the fund, being one of the last few MPs to have significant outside interests.

What is even more unusual is that those business interests do not stem from inherited wealth, nor are they a corollary of parliamentary work (several former ministers are only employed because of their parliamentary know-how and connections). In all likelihood Rees-Mogg would have been more prosperous if he had not entered parliament. This is one reason for his not having taken any ministerial preferment. The other is his rebelliousness.

Ever since being elected Rees-Mogg has been a persistent rebel — predominantly on Europe but also on other matters such as parliamentary recall and most recently on a Bill enshrining Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid. While his sentiments on aid are widely shared in the parliamentary Conservative party, even by the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Rees-Mogg was one of only eight MPs who were brave enough to attempt to derail the Bill.

By the measure of the website The Public Whip he is jointly the 11th most rebellious Conservative MP, voting against his party 8.7 per cent of the time. (The website’s measure of rebellions is a slightly generous one as it records all instances where an MP voted contrary to the majority of the party — some of these instances will not actually be on whipped votes.)

This makes him slightly more rebellious than Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless were before they defected to UKIP, but much less rebellious than the outliers Philip Hollobone, Philip Davies and Christopher Chope, who have rebelled on around a fifth of all votes.

These three are often talked of as potential defectors. By contrast, Rees-Mogg is a loyal rebel — if that is not an oxymoron. Other persistent rebels are motivated by a hatred of David Cameron and the whole Tory modernisation project. This is emphatically not the case with Rees-Mogg. Not only is he no bigot, he is a firm believer that the Tory party has to shake off any vestiges of dated and outmoded attitudes. Whatever some may think, Rees-Mogg is extraordinarily unlikely to defect to UKIP.

On the other hand, he is not prepared to vote for legislation which he believes to be wrong. Too many of his colleagues are willing to walk blindly into the division lobbies, in many cases not even knowing what they are voting on.

For some in the media, the Old Etonian Rees-Mogg fits a narrative of Tory toffs taking back the Conservative party after the Thatcher interregnum. This is doubly wrong. As I have argued in these pages before, the parliamentary party is now less toffish, indeed less Etonian, than it has ever been before. And Rees-Mogg does not fit the role — indeed his school contemporaries found him as much of an anomaly at Eton as he is on the parliamentary benches.

What Rees-Mogg is trying to do is move the Conservative party in a consistently Eurosceptic direction, indeed to persuade it to support withdrawal from the EU. As Rees-Mogg advised Cameron in the Commons chamber, “Stiffen your sinews, summon up the blood, imitate the action of a tiger. For that is how you should behave to our European partners, not like Bagpuss.”