This is the cover story from the July issue of Total Politics
As Jacob Rees-Mogg makes his way into my office late on a Tuesday night, I realise that within a very short space of time he has become an instantly recognisable figure – something that is usually well beyond the reach of the average backbencher – for those who know at least a little bit about politics.
But there is nothing average about Rees-Mogg. He has become, by general acclaim around Westminster (for better or for worse, depending on how you view it), a ‘mini-Boris’ figure.
He still has some way to go to emulate the real thing, but he’s beginning to reach parts of the country that few other Conservatives can.
Despite the privilege, class and wealth into which both he and Boris were born, they both appear to have wide appeal. This is probably why Ali G (aka Sacha Baron Cohen) chose to spoof Rees-Mogg on The 11 O‘Clock Show over ten years ago.
Some Conservatives MPs are hopeful that Rees-Mogg can, in time, develop into a fully-fledged Boris, with all the self-evident public appeal it brings. Why? Because he is adored by his colleagues, and is felt to be rather unique – intelligent, funny, decent, fair-minded and someone who believes in things and isn’t afraid to tell people.
There are already some who quietly hope that he has what it takes to be ultimately considered as a candidate for high office and watch his progress carefully.
Rees-Mogg himself eschews talk of ambition and promotion, appearing or affecting to be rather disinterested. He is certainly very good company, as I find out during our long chat together – much longer than was scheduled.
This admired Conservative MP is no Cameroon. Rees-Mogg is clear that he doesn’t believe in modernising the party. It is more traditional notions of Conservatism that will prove successful, he believes. “If the party stands for its principles and puts those into practice in government, it can win elections… because we can make people’s lives better.”
As with most Conservatives, he finds coalition frustrating and sees himself and his colleagues on the horns of a dilemma: “You and I want Conservative policies – we’re loyal Conservatives – but we want the government to be successful at the same time. We don’t want to spend our whole time attacking the government, but we want to make the case from Conservative policies. There needs to be a recognition in a coalition government that only government members are bound by collective responsibility.”
That dilemma is acute for many in the Conservative Parliamentary Party, and Rees-Mogg is no exception.
On the one hand, he fought valiantly against the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, has strong views on the current European settlement and believes overseas aid should be a matter for private charity.
But on the other, he strongly supports the economic message of the whole country living within its means, the welfare reforms being made by Iain Duncan Smith, and the raising of educational standards by Michael Gove.
He believes that “hope” is what the Conservative Party should deliver to all families, and it’s a hope that, he believes, has been too often extinguished by an ever-growing, overbearing bureaucracy, by a welfare system that acts more like a fishing net than a safety net, and by an education system that has stamped out opportunity and high standards.
“It’s aspiration, really,” he says, “but I don’t like the word – it reminds me of the sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News where trade unions said: ‘We’d do X, Y and Z for our members’ aspirations.’ ‘Aspiration’ is one of those ghastly political-jargon words, but it’s hard to find a better word.”
Lowering taxes, changing our relationship with Europe, cutting the size of the state, delivering an academy programme that is the equal of the old grammar schools, a university system based on merit and not quotas, and a benefit system that favours work are all things he believes will deliver hope to the country and election victory to the Conservative Party.
But he doesn’t thrust his views on the leadership. Rees-Mogg speaks when he has the opportunity, and listens to those who respond.
He says of David Cameron: “I don’t know him very well. I see him occasionally, and he’s perfectly friendly, perfectly polite… and I can never think of anything to say to him when I meet him.” Why not? “Well, he’s the prime minister. You think, ‘What on earth do I say?’”
Perhaps he could put his strong views on Europe and immigration policy to the PM.
He wants a different relationship with Europe, an associate membership, where, in return for a contribution to the coffers, the UK gets free trade, visa-free holidays, some limited movement of people, but not “free movement of economic migrants”.
“I think we have an immigration problem,” he continues. “The electorate is very worried about it, and as a party we have an issue. The research done by Lord Ashcroft is very interesting, because we have unconstrained immigration from Europe and heavily-constrained immigration from the Commonwealth. We have to be careful that it doesn’t look as if our immigration policy is racist against Commonwealth countries... Indians, Pakistanis and Africans, many of whom are old friends of our nation.”
While he believes immigrants have done a terrific job for the economy, he says: “The combination of the welfare system we’ve got and the availability of Polish migrant workers, particularly, has meant that there are a large number of Britons who have been unable to get out of welfare and into jobs. You need to tackle welfare and labour laws, but you may need, at the same time, to look at whether we can cope with free movement of labour in Europe.”
Physically, the MP for North East Somerset comes to your immediate attention as he exhibits characteristics that might cruelly be described as ‘sickly chic’.
He is tall, much taller than you might imagine, but with a slight forward incline that has possibly been developed over years of listening attentively to the views of others.
He’s also thin, to the point that probably makes negotiating a strong wind a challenge, and slightly paler than any mother would ideally like her child to be.
The old-fashioned, circular glasses and haircut add to the impression that his school nurse might have kept an anxious eye on young Rees-Mogg.
He confirms that his physical attributes aren’t perhaps what they should be when he talks about his passion for cricket. “I’m an armchair cricketer. I don’t play. I’m not very fit. But I love watching.”
His physique may well be striking, but some (particularly on the Labour benches) have pointed to what they describe as a slightly ludicrous figure who wears a ‘fogeyish’ trademark three-piece suit with his Commons pass tied with wire to an outer pocket.
There’s no compromise with modernisation, whether it’s his views or what he wears.
It’s something fellow MPs have noticed in the chamber during his speeches, which are always engaging, thoughtful and extremely well-delivered.
But they have also noticed that while waiting to speak, Rees-Mogg will lie prostrate on the green benches with his head on a bench-end armrest, “as if on a chaise-longue” as one colleague put it.
As our interview progresses, I notice Rees-Mogg slide down the armchair into his favoured position of near-horizontal with head perched slightly higher, presumably to ensure sufficient blood flow around his slim frame.
There’s something very slow and deliberate about him. From his speaking style to his impressive lounging technique, there’s an air of ‘nothing should be rushed’ – we will get there in the end.
His mannerisms put me in mind of a tortoise, and his ‘backstory’ of the tortoise and the hare. Rees-Mogg is a man who does get there in the end and reaches his prize, although it may take a little longer than absolutely necessary to reach the finishing line.
This is probably because he waits, watches and listens, more passive than aggressive in his interactions with others. But he also enjoys what he does, and sticks to the task because he loves his political work with a rare passion.
Although you wouldn’t know it from his formal, slightly gloomy speaking style, he has had a very happy life. He had his fair share of success at school, university, in business and politics, but it hasn’t been without the odd disappointment.
Rees-Mogg is the first to admit that he had a very fortunate upbringing, growing up between Somerset, where his family owned a “vast” house (now a hotel), and London’s Smith Square.
He now represents the area where he grew up. He was educated at Westminster Under School, followed by Eton and Oxford, but from a very young age there was only one real interest in his life: politics.
This is clear from his earliest memory. As a small child, he commuted between the family’s two homes, and there was plenty of driving to be done. He remembers having to pick his father up from Chequers, where the Times editor had been holding a meeting with then-prime minister Ted Heath.
“The dangers of the press being too close to politicians,” Rees-Mogg teases. “My father was seeing Ted Heath at Chequers, and he can’t drive so we had to pick him up. Heath kindly invited us all in for tea. I was just under three, I think, and I remember being given a garibaldi biscuit by the then-prime minister.”
The young Rees-Mogg continued to be fascinated by politics.
Living in Smith Square, he had a ringside seat to the Conservative election victories in the 1980s.
He recalls regularly seeing Margaret Thatcher’s Wallis Arnold bus in the square, which took her around the country, and trying to stay up late to see what was going on.
“I remember staying up reasonably late, but I was only nine at the time, so I got as far as the Nine O’Clock News at that stage.”
Much to his annoyance, he was away at school on the night of Thatcher’s big election victories in 1983 and 1987. He was back, however, for John Major’s victory in 1992, and heard the cheering in the square.
His childhood, he says with fondness, was a happy time. He was brought up by his much-loved nanny, who now tends to his own children, and enjoyed Eton. “I was very stupid when I got to Eton,” he admits. “To begin with, I did not excel at anything. I was not bold. I think ‘shy’ would be overstating it, but I wasn’t somebody who pushed themselves to the front of things.”
Even today he does not push himself forward, preferring to let things take their course.
Rees-Mogg was, from an early age, very interested in and a huge admirer of Thatcher. She made a huge impact on him.
“I thought she was fantastic,” he says. This admiration was confirmed in his school report. His teacher said: “Even though I’m a great Thatcherite, Rees-Mogg seems to be a particularly dogmatic one.”
It won’t surprise readers that the Conservative MP was opinionated at school, but never a rebel.
The worst trouble he got into was for gambling. “I got into a bit of bother because I took a roulette wheel in and ran a game after lunch, and got discovered. Somebody lost and complained to the teacher. It was a tiny amount of money… 2p, that sort of thing. I don’t think it was unduly serious, but it was about the worst thing I ever did.”
This true story hasn’t made the gossip columns, but others that aren’t true have.
Any story that appears to emphasise his class or privilege appears to make it into print. For example, one concerns a horrible run Eton boys had to take part in, and it was said Rees-Mogg paid another boy to follow him around with an umbrella.
As he says himself: “It was great story, but sadly, completely false.”
Of course, there’s also the famous story about his campaign to win Central Fife, where it was alleged he canvassed the working-class area in his Bentley with his nanny. Half-true. “Well, nanny is definitely true. Nanny’s been in the family for 46 years. All Conservative members of the family came up to campaign for me. It practically doubled my team, as you can imagine. The Bentley is false.”
He does have an ancient Bentley, purchased from the estate of former England cricket captain Gubby Allen. After Allen’s death, his car came up at auction, and “my father persuaded me it was good thing to buy, and it cost less than a new car. It costs a lot more to run, so it turned out to be sort of Brown economics.”
Things did not go well for Rees-Mogg after his first effort at election in 1997.
He might have expected a safer seat in 2001, when he fought The Wrekin. It was probably a seat that should have been won in normal electoral times, but a combination of Blair’s New Labour and 18 years of continuous Tory rule meant there was no comeback.
Things didn’t improve. In 2005, he applied for “dozens of seats” and was rejected by them all, getting only one interview.
In these circumstances, his determination is impressive. He says: “You just keep plodding on” – like the fabled tortoise.
However, the enforced break from politics allowed him to build an impressive and successful fund management business, with £1.4bn under his company’s management, investing in emerging markets.
It’s true to say that some of the best Conservative politicians of recent times have had their selection problems – such as Michael Howard and Ann Widdecombe – but, Cameron’s ‘A-list’ did grate with Rees-Mogg.
His selection as candidate for North East Somerset was said by The Times to be Cameron’s worst nightmare.
“It was all very unfortunate, really. At that point the party was going through an effort to get different types of candidates and then practically the following selections were me and Richard Drax. He’s got four names, and I’ve only got two, so it wasn’t ideal for the party’s image – but I thought it was a lot of old hogwash. The party should have good people, and it’s completely irrelevant what their backgrounds are.”
Rees-Mogg speaks for many traditional Conservatives beyond Westminster with his strong, forthright views, in a way that Boris might.
But, unlike Boris, Rees-Mogg has, so far, preferred to travel in the slow lane to reach his destination.
His fellow Conservative MPs are now looking for him to speed up as he finds his distinctive aura becomes a serious advantage on the backbenches.
Rob Wilson is the Conservative MP for Reading East