James Frayne: Why it's Tory leader or bust for Rees-Mogg

Written by James Frayne on 31 May 2018 in Opinion

As a traditional Catholic, winning the party leadership is a more likely prospect than ministerial promotion for the controversial Conservative MP.

Does Jacob Rees-Mogg's traditional Catholicism lock him out of a senior political job? Are his views – reasonably typical of observant Catholics - on social issues a barrier to him becoming a health minister, where he might influence decisions on abortion, or a barrier to him becoming an education minister, where he might influence what children are taught on social issues in schools? This was the question he was asked recently on the BBC Daily Politics show by presenter Jo Coburn. 
When confronted with questions about their religious beliefs, politicians usually have two answers: either that their views are private and don't affect how they approach complex political and social issues in a liberal society; or that they disagree with the church's teaching, which is common amongst American politicians (particularly Democrats, who must contend with a deeply liberal base). Politicians often begin with the former position but end up with the latter after sustained media questioning or activists' attacks.  
In his interview with Jo Coburn, Rees-Mogg chose another route entirely, as he often does. He acknowledged his faith to be a fundamental part of his own moral and political identity, saying it affects what he thinks about important social issues. But he also said these personal views don’t mean he’d force them on others - because he recognises society has settled on a different view. Many interviewers find this difficult to understand or accept, particularly when he doesn't rule out voting according to his own conscience on moral questions in Parliament. 
What Rees-Mogg is essentially saying is this: I have strong views and will vote on my own conscience on social issues when the time comes. But in an executive position, I wouldn't force my views on others because addressing moral issues in a political setting requires societal consent. He hasn't articulated this so clearly – about future intentions - because doing so would be inelegant for a backbencher being talked of as a potential future leader. (Incidentally, this is the philosophical approach most observant lay Catholics take towards political issues.) 
Ordinarily, you’d have to completely doubt the wisdom of such an approach. The views of mainstream observant Catholics attract so much hostility from liberal-minded (in the American sense of the term) politicians, campaign groups, activists and celebrities that it’s hard to imagine most Catholic politicians being able to define their own views even vaguely positively before being written off as prejudiced relics of the past. And the bad smell – intensified by the media - would ordinarily be enough to put off Party leaders from sanctioning promotion. That’s just as true of a centre-right party like the Conservative Party as it is of left leaning parties like Labour or the Lib Dems. 
Rees-Mogg isn’t an ordinary politician. He’s one of the few politicians able to reach over the heads of hostile opponents and the media to speak directly to public audiences. He isn’t generally popular with the public, but his apparently unvarnished, authentic approach and his traditional views have secured a huge following in the Conservative Party and the wider Conservative movement. It would be an exaggeration to say he has secured this support because of his traditional views on social issues, but they clearly haven’t been a barrier to his success. 
Could he secure enough support in the party that would outweigh these problems – in effect, to force a prime minister or Conservative leader to promote him in the name of party unity? Such is the ferocity of the attacks that would come a prime minister’s way – perhaps even with the prospect of other ministerial resignations – you have to doubt it. Even with Rees-Mogg’s following in the party, it is unimaginable.

In this way, it’s hard not to answer the original question about whether his traditional Catholicism locks him out of a senior political job with a guarded “yes”. Perhaps the political climate will change in time, but that’s surely where we are now.
However such is his status with the grassroots that while promotion looks unlikely, Rees-Mogg is clearly a viable leadership contender. After all, Andrea Leadsom came close last time. It therefore looks like Rees-Mogg’s only viable route to political success, at this point, is to go after the top job: Conservative Party leader. His views on social issues would probably not put off most Conservatives from voting for him. As for the country as a whole, that’s another question entirely. Again, he’s probably got bigger problems with the electorate as a whole, than his views on social issues.


About the author

James Frayne is former policy director at Policy Exchange and founding partner of the public affairs agency Public First.

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