This article first appeared in the print edition of The Witness, Autumn Term 2017
Often dubbed the ‘honourable member for the 18th Century’, Jacob Rees-Mogg is now keen to display his anti-establishment credentials. He discusses Corbyn’s successes, Conservative failures, the establishment, Brexit, and how his party must adapt for the future.
The Member of Parliament for North East Somerset was until recently known for his political caricature and love of ridiculously long words (In 2012 he described alleged corruption in the European Court of Justice with the word: floccinaucinihilipilification). Though, ‘The Moggfather’ is no longer a joke. Jacob Rees-Mogg is now level with Jeremy Corbyn as the bookmaker’s favourite to succeed Theresa May in the top job.
Rees-Mogg accepts the Conservative Party has a problem in attracting voters away from Corbyn after his stronger than expected performance in June’s General Election. “What they liked I think was the principled approach Corbyn is taking, so that you understand why he’s going to do something from what he believes in. Before you know the specific policy, you know what it’s likely to be”. Whereas, with the Conservatives as a longstanding party of government “people see the solutions but they don’t see the basis of the solutions”. He argues the party must discover the “golden thread of underlying principle” that links their policy together.
However, when probed on splits between Remainers and Brexiteers, traditionalists and radicals in the party he leaps to the defensive. “I think it’s important to recognise the pro-Europeans are an important part of the Conservative Party” he stresses. When called a traditionalist, he explains “I’ve always believed that you preserve things best by working out what you mustn’t preserve. It’s trying to ensure that the development of policy doesn’t get rid of things unnecessarily just because they’re old, equally some things that are old don’t work. I’m not in favour of us going around in horses and carts – I’m in favour of going around in cars”.
Whilst claiming there were many causes of Brexit, it’s evident that he holds one in higher regard than the rest. “The single biggest factor was the democracy issue – can my vote change the government? And the thought that your vote couldn’t change the government was of great importance to people”. The best outcome? His answer was clear. “The best outcome is that we become a globally free trading nation, that we give consumers in this country the opportunity to have lower prices, and that we have control of our own affairs so that if governments do well or badly they will be held accountable by the voters”. The worst outcome? “The worst deal is we remain de facto inside the European Union without any say in how it’s run… that would be a grave error and a betrayal of Brexit”.
“I’m not in favour of us going around in horses and carts – I’m in favour of going around in cars”
What about if we don’t get a deal at all? “I think people get far too worried about this. Not everything we do is determined by Europe. Trade can carry on under WTO terms – that’s extremely straight forward. There is no dislocation of goods coming into the United Kingdom as we would have control over that. The risk from goods leaving the UK being disrupted is minimal because it’s so important in the supply chains of continental European companies”. He surmises by declaring “the fear of no deal is one of those periodic spasms of fear that people have like the millennium bug or when people around the year 1000 thought the world would end – it’s not real”.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the question of the establishment, European interference is front and centre. Accepting that he was born into the upper echelons of society and acknowledging the interpretation of the Brexit vote as a backlash against such elites, he’s quick to display which side he’s on. “Because I know the establishment well I know what is wrong with it. I think it deserved the kicking it got, so I’m very happy to be on the anti-establishment side”. He does not think it accurate to describe Brexit as the result of discontent with domestic politics in isolation. “It was the EU that was making them worse off, it was the EU law that was making the cost of their food more expensive”. When the recent rise in food prices is pointed out he’s having none of it: “That’s because we’re still in the EU” he retorts.
The optimism in tone continues into the discussion of ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit. Far from mourning the loss EU institutions such as the European Council, Mogg believes this to be something of a blessing. Stating that the UK will no longer be bound by EU policy on existing international forums, and will regain its seat on the WTO, he talks of great opportunity. But haven’t we lost any clout? “Oh, we’ve gained clout!” he exclaims. When asked how this could be applied to Syria or North Korea he regains some sobriety however. “Well I don’t think it’s realistic to think either the EU or the UK will play a major role in North Korea… just because we’re outside the EU doesn’t mean we’re able to solve all the world’s problems”. What conditions would he set for returning to the EU? “I wouldn’t. Once we’ve left I can’t see any reason for returning… the EU would have to change out of all recognition”. Obviously, he doesn’t place much faith in that happening. “I don’t think this is feasible”.
“I’m very happy to be on the anti-establishment side”
Despite repeatedly expressing his support for Theresa May coming out of the election, he gives both barrels to criticising the election campaign. “We were too complacent, we thought it would be easy, and we had a manifesto that was worse than uninspiring, just a secession of policy precepts which hit our own supporters”. Referring to the commitment to scrap the ‘triple lock’ on pensions and the so called ‘dementia tax’, disappointment with the manifesto not only applies to the elderly. “And we didn’t speak to young people – we just didn’t bother. It wasn’t that we had policies they didn’t like, we just didn’t say anything to them and just assumed they wouldn’t vote”, the exasperation in his voice growing.
The campaign on social media was also to blame. “Jeremy Corbyn had a better social media campaign this time round, we had the better social media campaign in 2015. It changes so rapidly it’s quite hard for politicians to keep up with”. He is doubtful of the notion that other Conservatives could learn anything from his own online success. “I wouldn’t dream to teach the party any lessons, no. I don’t really know why the things I’ve put on social media have had the response they’ve had”.
As for Theresa May’s future and the 2022 campaign, he clearly wants to dampen the idea of himself as a possible successor. “It’s some years off… but does Mrs May have my full support? Yes, she has”. Is he open to a reassessment? “Who knows what will happen in five years, but were the election in five weeks or five months Mrs May would have my full support”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg backs the Prime Minister – for now.
Will is Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Witness