Politics in a minor key
‘If Jacob Rees-Mogg is indeed a principled arch-eurosceptic, why did he vote both for and against Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal? If he is so politically acute, why did his attempt to assassinate the previous party leader fail so miserably?’
Much like a moustachioed Frenchman, swaddled with onions and wobbling along on a bike, Jacob Rees-Mogg fulfils a national stereotype that that is, paradoxically, atypical.
Thin-faced and bespectacled over his trade-mark double-breasted suit, the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons personifies a lost England to a rapt audience that applauds his mannered indifference to modernity.
Interesting questions about the man abound. So do two big ones about this book. Why is it called an “unauthorised” biography, with the accompanying implication of sizzle and controversy? And if an entire volume is indeed required about this mid-ranking 50-year-old politician, why is the Tory bigwig Michael Ashcroft the person to write it?
Readers will come to the book with certain expectations. Ashcroft is the author of expertly researched and carefully targetted books on other issues, such as the holders of the Victoria Cross and—with Isabel Oakeshott—a scandalous (“unauthorised”) biography of David Cameron. A book written by a Brexit bankroller about a Brexit politician can have merit. Moreover Rees-Mogg may one day hold one of the great offices of state. At a minimum, it would be interesting to know answers to the everyman questions: Is he “authentic”, for example, or is he hamming it up?
But this book offers few answers to the easy questions about J.R.M., as he is often known, let alone posing more difficult ones. For example, if he is indeed a principled arch-eurosceptic, why did he vote both for and against Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal? If he is so politically acute, why did his attempt to assassinate the previous party leader fail so miserably? How do his trademark good manners fare in the worst-tempered period in modern political history? (Not well, some would say, citing his insolent lounging on a bench in Parliament during an important debate, and his traducing of a senior doctor, for which he later, grudgingly, apologised.)
To both enemies and admirers J.R.M. represents a throwback to an earlier age. He has unusual, slightly archaic mannerisms. A juvenile interest in suits, financial markets and conservative politics, prompted bullying at Eton and derision at Oxford. The psychological motivation and cost of that should be the mainstay of a conscientious biography. But instead of insight, this book offers only tortured, empty sentences: “Who can know what impact any alleged bullying had on Rees-Mogg?”
The obvious person to ask about this would be J.R.M. himself. But his own voice is mysteriously absent. Given the evident and extensive involvement of his friends, he must have known the book was under way. He also attended the launch party. Ashcroft, one of the self-proclaimed “Bad Boys of Brexit” says he has known the Eurosceptic MP for 20 years, invited him to a birthday party, and helped fund one of his parliamentary campaigns. It is therefore fair to say that Jacob’s Ladder is written by an admirer and that the “unauthorised” tag has no obvious meaning, and both author and subject are culpable in its many omissions.
The cleverly named Jacob’s Ladder is not, however, outright hagiographic. Amid the tiresome reams of quotes from the politician’s past interviews are some sharp points: his father’s endless string pulling, and the outing of his maternal grandfather as a milkman (assuming that’s what the author means by “milk contractor”). At a minimum, J.R.M. is a living rebuttal to the levelling ambition of sameism, that the super-heated steam-iron of the state should flatten the ugly ridges of privilege. And he has some good moments. His put-downs are the stuff of modern legend, as when he muted a spittle-flecked protester by asking (on camera) what exactly the man was protesting against.
Yet rarity value and telegenic appeal should be seen as interesting elements of success, not its achievement. Ashcroft delves dutifully into the dry detail of what comes across as a surprisingly featureless life. J.R.M. was once hit on the head with a conker, eats a lot of chocolate and was neither much of a scholar nor an athlete (though he once took to his heels to escape the newspaper columnist Will Self). His father owned a big house, which he couldn’t afford, and moved to something smaller. This is an upmarket Adrian Mole, not the early life of a future Churchill. The comparison is in many ways unfair. But it is worth noting that by Rees-Mogg’s age (in 1924), Churchill had seen action in India, Sudan and France, had been a prisoner of war and had escaped, had been Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for War and of the Colonies, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also a fine journalist.
More recent comparisons are unflattering too. By the age of 50 his heroine, Margaret Thatcher, had been Secretary of State for Education and Leader of the Opposition. Roy Jenkins was six when his father was imprisoned during the General Strike, and he later served in the army and with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. By the time he was 50, he had been Home Secretary, Chancellor and deputy leader of his party. The former Tory MP Rory Stewart, now 46, has slept on mud floors, faced mobs of Iraqis baying for his blood and found time to be Secretary of State for International Development.
And J.R.M.? He spent three years in Hong Kong, where his achievements included teaching a housekeeper to make bread-and-butter pudding.
In an FT interview in 2017 J.R.M. was asked if “this whole fogeyish thing” is an act. He responded: “Nobody would deliberately develop my image.” What is behind the image we may find out in due course, but not from this book, which, as the unkind might say of its subject, is both slim and over-long.
By Michael Ashcroft
Biteback, 302pp, £20.00