‘The contrast between Jacob Rees-Mogg’s palpable decency and the meretriciousness and glibness of many politicans is striking’
It has been a busy summer for Jacob Rees-Mogg: re-elected as MP for North East Somerset — a Labour-held seat until 2010 in its previous incarnation as Wansdyke — with a majority of more than 10,000 in the June general election; his wife Helena giving birth to their sixth child, and fifth son, Sixtus, in July; and the subject of Conservative leadership speculation in August.
In the midst of this Rees-Mogg — and indeed much of his brood — have become Instagram sensations. His account first gained widespread attention when he posted a picture of himself with his eldest son, Peter, aged nine, both wearing prominent blue Tory rosettes and Jacob his trademark double-breasted pinstripe suit, outside a tattoo parlour displaying Labour election posters with the caption, “We shall have to take our business elsewhere.”
Time also had to be found to celebrate the Rees-Mogg nanny Veronica’s 50 years of service with the family. He must be the only contemporary politician who is happy to discuss his nanny and that of his children — it is, admittedly, rather unusual for them to be the same person — in interviews and to pose for photographs with her. Many other Conservative and indeed Labour politicians employ a person to look after their children, whether they call them a nanny or not, yet it is only Veronica who is visible.
Is there the remotest chance that Rees-Mogg will become the next Prime Minister? Or will he remain best-known for his old-fashioned manners, occasional appearances on the BBC’s Have I Got News for You and willingness to send himself up on social media? It takes quite a leap of the imagination to see him in Number 10. After all, he is a backbench MP first elected only six years ago who has never held ministerial office even of the most junior kind.
Until recently, those betting on who will be the next Conservative leader have taken “the Moggster” much more seriously than has the commentariat, placing him at the time of writing as second favourite behind David Davis and ahead of both his fellow Old Etonian Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond. This has changed somewhat with a ferocious attack on Rees-Mogg last month by the columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris in The Times, the paper once edited by the late William Rees-Mogg, Jacob’s father.
Parris’s criticisms of Rees-Mogg are precisely those that the modernising Conservative establishment during the Cameron-Osborne years held against him: that his fogeyish image would put off voters, while his steadfast beliefs in a low-tax, small-state economy and his passionate Euroscepticism merely hark back to a Thatcherite era with which voters are out of sympathy. While Cameron was flaunting the Tories’ compassion by committing the UK to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, Rees-Mogg was one of only eight MPs who tried to derail the bill enshrining this into law. This was a case where the modernisers dismissing the “reactionary” Rees-Mogg are in fact the ones who may be out of line with the public mood.
The Conservative establishment has tried its very best to impede his progress. Before the 2010 general election he was blocked from the “A list” of preferred candidates. When North East Somerset, designated as a target seat and a constituency with which Rees-Mogg had long connections, came up, the local party insisted on interviewing him, despite the best efforts of party HQ. One of the shadow cabinet architects of modernisation, Francis (now Lord) Maude, reassured himself that the local association would never select such a fogey — they did — and then that he would never be elected — he was.
Current and former Conservative MPs I have spoken to all agree that Rees-Mogg is among the very brightest and most talented of their number, yet he has had no preferment. This may be partly his own wish. He is one of the few MPs with a successful outside career, having co-founded and still being a co-owner of Somerset Capital Management, an emerging markets fund with $8.5 billion under management, from which he draws a declared monthly remuneration of around £14,000, plus undisclosed — as is his right — additional dividend income. This might be a rather more appealing prospect than, say, being Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, and all that that entails — not being allowed to speak publicly on matters outside one’s brief and having to slavishly follow the government whip.
But the main reason is the misguided belief among the Tory high command that Rees-Mogg puts voters off and will sully their compassionate credentials. The recent election has shown that for many voters the Tories remain the nasty party. What they want from the Conservatives is straight talking and competence. Rees-Mogg has these in abundance.
His colleagues also say that he is one of the nicest and most decent people in parliament. This is certainly my experience. My own interactions with him have been outside politics — our children go to the same school — and the contrast between Rees-Mogg’s palpable decency and the all-too-obvious meretriciousness and glibness of many politicians is striking.
As a former senior minister put it to me, “No one is offering leadership at the moment in the Conservative Party. It is certainly not coming from Theresa May or others at the very top. What Jacob is doing is offering a clear message and — however much I may disagree with parts of it — people want someone who knows where they want us to go.”
It remains unlikely that Rees-Mogg will become Prime Minister, but many of his colleagues do want him to be brought into the Cabinet. They think that perhaps the greatest risk to him having the role that he so obviously deserves is that of being overexposed in the media, which might provoke a backlash. He is well aware of this and is turning down many more requests than he is accepting.
Nanny Veronica and the Rees-Mogg brood do not yet need to prepare for a move to Downing Street; but stranger things have happened. After all, Labour’s election of Jeremy Corbyn — another MP who had only ever been a backbencher — would have seemed if anything rather more unlikely in May 2015, and yet only four months later he was Leader of the Opposition.