He’s tall, lanky and bespectacled, a man whose upper-class accent, double-breasted suits and right-wing opinions reflect the entrenched traditionalism that influences almost every aspect of his life. His late father was a famous newspaper editor, his home is a sprawling Grade II-listed manor house in rural Somerset, and he recently boasted that, despite having six children, he has never changed a nappy in his life. That is the job of the nanny, who has been part of the family for half a century and once accompanied him whilst he was canvassing a Scottish council estate in a Mercedes (unsurprisingly, he failed to win the seat). Love him or hate him, Jacob Rees-Mogg is one of the most colourful characters in British politics, a man who once had his own private toilet in Claridge’s and who is rumoured to wear collared pyjamas; the big question is, could he really be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street?
Despite having been an MP for over seven years, Rees-Mogg’s popularity has exploded this summer as several online groups have sprung up calling on the eccentric backbencher to run for the Tory leadership. This is not just the work of a few internet oddballs with too much time on their hands; a petition in support of a Rees-Mogg leadership bid has attracted almost 23,000 signatories, with the Ready for Rees-Mogg website describing the MP as ‘the person to lead the Conservative fightback and reignite Britain’s promise.’ What do these people see in a man whose tastes, opinions and attitudes seem to be from a bygone era, and are they right in believing that he could revitalise the Tory Party?
Much of Rees-Mogg’s appeal lies in the fact that he is an eccentric who is so clearly different from any other MP. With the appearance and persona of a PG Wodehouse character, it is easy to forget that he is only 48 years old, yet it would be unfair to assume that he is completely out of step with the rest of the country. He is a somewhat unexpected Instagram addict, and during the general election campaign he amused his followers with a self-deprecating photo of him and his son outside a tattoo parlour decked in Labour Party signs, with the caption ‘we shall have to take our business elsewhere.’ He has also recently taken to Twitter (his first tweet was in Latin), and as such many are asking whether the North East Somerset MP is seeking to capitalise on his new-found popularity. Just last week, his friend Ted Malloch, an American academic and businessman, claimed that Rees-Mogg is now actively considering a leadership bid.
If there has ever been an ideal time for someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is now. With Britain leaving the European Union, Jeremy Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party and Donald Trump in the White House, we are truly in an ‘anti-politics’ age where all bets are off and unpredictability is the new norm. So far the Conservatives have remained curiously isolated from these new trends. When David Cameron resigned last year he was swiftly replaced by Theresa May, a figure who has been part of the Tory establishment for well over a decade, and despite losing their Commons majority at the general election in June, Mrs May has survived the summer without a leadership challenge. However, she will not be trusted to fight another election campaign, and with few potential leadership contenders within the Cabinet there is a strong chance that the Tories may look to the backbenches when the time comes to pick May’s successor.
In promoting his leadership chances, Rees-Mogg’s supporters have compared him with Mr Corbyn, pointing out that both men spent most of their political careers as outsiders. Like Corbyn, Rees-Mogg’s greatest asset is his authenticity, and unlike other politicians from equally privileged backgrounds he has never shied away from his aristocratic roots, instead choosing to take ownership of them and convert them into a core part of his persona. However, others have described him as a British Donald Trump, an association which is unfair and inaccurate; Jacob Rees-Mogg is infinitely more intelligent, cultured and moral than the odious US President, whilst his politics – a mix of traditionalist conservatism and soft libertarianism – are a world away from Trump’s crude, race-baiting populism.
However, there are some legitimate concerns about a Rees-Mogg leadership bid. His upper-class eccentricities may have shot him to fame, but they could equally scupper his chances of being taken seriously at the top of British politics, whilst his opinions threaten to alienate Tory moderates and the country at large. A devout Catholic who favours the traditional Latin Mass, Rees-Mogg opposed same-sex marriage and has indicated support for tightening the abortion laws, whilst in 2013 he was forced to apologise after speaking at a dinner held by the ultra-conservative Traditional Britain Group, who have called for an end to immigration and the repatriation of non-white Britons to ‘their natural homelands.’ It is clear that Rees-Mogg does not support the vile policies espoused by this group, yet he showed questionable judgement in attending their dinner without conducting proper research into their beliefs.
Equally, his ‘High Tory’ agenda may be at odds with the realities of modern Britain, and as a strident Brexiteer he would struggle to win over the party’s pro-European wing. One Tory MP, Heidi Allen, has today claimed that she would leave the Conservatives if he were to become leader. Similarly, the Conservative columnist Matthew Parris launched an astonishingly vitriolic attack on Rees-Mogg over the weekend, writing that ‘his manners are perfumed but his opinions are poison’ and describing him as ‘an unfailing, unbending, unrelenting reactionary’ with ‘the intellectual nimbleness of a top QC and the opinions of a Colonel Blimp.’ A Rees-Mogg leadership would create a fresh divide in the famously fratricidal Tory Party, and potentially accelerate the growing calls for a new centrist party as an alternative to the increasingly polarised political landscape.
For now, Jacob Rees-Mogg will remain a lowly backbencher; an imminent leadership contest looks increasingly unlikely, and he has announced that Theresa May has his ‘unequivocal’ support. However, he could well be playing a long game. Eurosceptic right-wingers know that Mrs May is their best hope for a clean Brexit deal, having refused to bow to the wishes of pro-European Cabinet ministers such as Chancellor Philip Hammond, and so they are unlikely to move against her until the withdrawal process is complete. After the negotiations are over, her position will be a lot more tenuous, and in a party crying out for radical change Rees-Mogg could be a real contender for the top job. He may lack government experience, his views may be significantly to the right of the political mainstream, and he may appear to be a cartoonish caricature in the eyes of many, but only a fool would write him off in this day and age. If you don’t believe me, just remember who the Labour leader is.