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Wednesday 26 September 2018

Top of the Toffs: Why Rees-Mogg is tipped to be the next Tory PM

Once dismissed as a cartoonish upper-class twit, Jacob Rees-Mogg is now favourite to be the next Tory prime minister. Kim Bielenberg on the rise of the marble-mouthed maverick who may have the future of the Irish border in his hands

Ambition: Rees-Mogg said he wanted to be resident of 10 Downing Street by the age of 70
Ambition: Rees-Mogg said he wanted to be resident of 10 Downing Street by the age of 70
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is the sort of chap whose idea of being casual is to wear a tweed jacket and tie at weekends, rather than his normal workaday double-breasted pinstripe suit.

The floppy-haired politician peppers his conversations with Latin phrases, drives around in a 1968 Bentley, and, as the father of six children, proudly boasts that he has never condescended to change a nappy in his life.

"Nanny would not think it a good idea for me to be changing nappies," the 48-year-old explained, defying modern conventions of parental political correctness. "She thinks it is her job."

The nanny concerned, Veronica Crook, seems to loom large in the life of this marble-mouthed maverick, who grows in prominence with every passing month.

She looked after him as a child, and then he used her services himself when he became a father.

When he first stood for parliament unsuccessfully in Scotland two decades ago, he went canvassing with the same nanny, and she drove him around the constituency in his mother's Mercedes.

Until recently, the member of parliament for Somerset North-East could be casually dismissed as a cosseted cartoon aristocrat, whose exaggerated mannerisms seemed like mere affectation.

After all, he was playing second fiddle to a more chummy old Etonian chap, Boris Johnson, who looked like he had cornered that market.

But now, the British commentariat is beginning to take the claims of Rees-Mogg to high office more seriously, as the leader of the arch-Brexiteers.

He is chairman of an influential committee of MPs campaigning against any attempt to water down Britain's commitment to telling the EU to get stuffed.

It is time for own political heavyweights, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, to take notice of Moggmania.

With the Conservative party in disarray over Brexit and Theresa May teetering on the brink, Rees-Mogg has been installed as the bookies' favourite to be the next Tory prime minister. The very idea may seem preposterous, but is it any more outlandish a prospect than Donald Trump as President of the United States?

The British commentator Suzanne Moore has likened Mogg's appeal to that of Trump, Boris Johnson and the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

According to Moore, he embodies the three things that many people require of modern politicians: a veneer of authenticity; an ability to cut through perceived liberal wisdom; and enormous privilege that is flaunted, rather than hidden.

The prospect of a new age of Moggocracy cannot be ignored, as it is now conceivable that the future of our border could be in the hands of the man leading the British charge against the EU.

Darling of the grass roots

In recent days, one newspaper described him as the "MP for the 18th century whose time may have come".

That is a version of "Tiocfaidh ár lá" that nobody, least of all the Shinners, really bargained for. With Sinn Féin and the DUP failing to form a power-sharing executive, 20 years after the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland may be facing direct rule by Mogg.

While Theresa May has struggled to make up her mind over what form Brexit takes, Rees-Mogg is unambiguous in pushing for Britain to leave any kind of customs union or single market.

Unlike ministers on the Conservative benches, the backbencher does not sully his public utterances with any hint of compromise and he is utterly confident in his lofty assertions. This has made him a darling of the Conservative grass roots.

Before Britain ever decided to quit the EU, he declared the plans of Brussels eurocrats to be the "work of the devil".

And in a characteristic flourish, he used the longest word ever recorded in the British Houses of Parliament when lambasting the EU judiciary: "Let me indulge in the floccinaucinihilipilification of EU judges".

He later defined the word as "the action or habit of estimating as worthless".

Born into the upper classes as the son of William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, Jacob showed a gift for attracting attention from an early age, and spent decades honing his image as king of the young fogeys.

He was already reading the Financial Times at the age of eight, and used a £50 inheritance from a dear departed uncle to invest in the stock market. His now legendary nanny had the task of phoning his broker.

By the age of 11, he had already made decent profits from his investments, and turned up at shareholders' meetings to give speeches.

In an interview as a teenager, the precocious Etonian told of his ambition to be a millionaire at 20, a multi-millionaire at 40 and prime minister at 70. Rees-Mogg never really got into trouble much at school, but he once recalled how he had been sent out of class twice: the first time for wearing a large Tory rosette on his lapel; and a second time after arguing with a teacher about the infallibility of the Pope.

These infractions show the most important cornerstones of the Rees-Mogg philosophy - true blue blooded Conservatism and devout Catholicism.

Asked if he would ever join Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party, the man elected as an MP in 2010, replied: "No! Never, never, never! I was born a Conservative and I shall die a Conservative."

Unusually for a British politician, many of Rees-Mogg's views chime with those of social conservatives in Ireland, who campaigned against gay marriage and now want to stop the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

"I am a Catholic and I take the teachings of the Catholic Church seriously," he has said.

Outlining his opposition to same-sex marriage, he said: "Marriage is a sacrament and the decision of what is a sacrament lies with the Church, not with Parliament."

The Church's teachings on faith and morals were "authoritative", he said, but he added it was not for him to judge others.

However, he said he was completely opposed to abortion, arguing that it was "morally indefensible".

"Life is sacrosanct and begins at the point of conception," he has argued.

Placing himself outside the spectrum of mainstream British opinion, he said he was opposed to abortion in cases of rape.

"A great wrong has been created at the point of a rape. The question is - does a second wrong make it any better?" he told the BBC.

All sorts of stories abound about his privileged upbringing, and some of them are inevitably apocryphal. He denied that he was once paid a boy at Eton to shield him with an umbrella from the rain on a cross-country run. His response to this rumour in an interview was: " I wish I had. What a good idea!"

But he confirmed a story that his nanny and his maid did take turns to shield his neck from the sun with a book at the Glyndebourne opera festival. And, he also validated a report that along with the King of Spain, he has exclusive access to an upstairs loo at Claridges, the ultra-posh venue for afternoon tea in Mayfair.

The Irish Government will no doubt fear that a Mogg premiership will inevitably lead to the border being closed between North and South in a hard Brexit situation, but his own position on the border is quite simple: do nothing.

He told a Conservative event in the autumn that post-Brexit Britain would not have to put up border posts stretching from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle.

"I don't care if a few hundredweight of beef is smuggled across the Irish border. It will make no odds to the British economy. We have no obligation to put any border up. Full stop.

"Challenge the EU to do it. I just don't believe that they will, and I don't believe that the Irish will agree to them doing it."

But at the same time, prime minister Mogg will not have any truck with the notion of a United Ireland. He likes to give his party its full title as the "Conservative and Unionist Party" and recently declared: "Northern Ireland is as much a part of the United Kingdom as Somerset."

If Mogg moves into Number 10 Downing Street, temporarily vacating his stately pile amid the rolling hills of Somerset, he may have to patch up some of his differences with Leo Varadkar.

Last month, Rees-Mogg took exception to remarks by the Taoiseach. Varadkar expressed regret that Britain was leaving the EU, and said he was conscious of "British veterans, very brave people, who fought on the beaches of France not just for Britain but also for European democracy and for European values."

Swipe at Ireland

Rees-Mogg took a swipe at Ireland's record during World War II.

"Mr Varadkar forgets that Ireland was neutral during the war, which implies it had no interest in Europe, and Éamon de Valera signed a book of condolence at the German Embassy in Dublin on the death of Hitler.

"Perhaps if Mr Varadkar knew his own country's undistinguished wartime history better, his views on our history would be more informed."

In order to be chosen as leader when Theresa May is deposed, he would first have to be chosen by fellow MPs to be one of the two candidates, who are then elected by members of the party.

Professor Philip Cowley, political scientist at Queen Mary University in London, predicted in recent days: "If he stands in any forthcoming leadership contest, (and) he gets through to the last two, he'll walk it."

The columnist Matthew Norman suggested this week that the dwindling band of old, white, rural, mostly male party members who pick Tory leaders is cocooned within the demented fantasy bubble of a post-Brexit imperial renaissance.

According to Norman, no one - not even Boris Johnson - is as expert at locating their G-spot as Jacob Rees-Mogg.

@KimBielenberg

 

Why he is in the news: Favourite with Paddy Power to be next Tory Prime Minister

Career: Educated at Eton and Oxford. Worked in investment banking before becoming an MP in 2010

Family: Married to wealthy heiress Helena De Chair. They have six children - Peter Theodore Alphege, Mary Emma, Thomas Wentworth Somerset Dunstan, Anselm Charles Fitzwilliam, Alfred Wulfric Leyson Pius, Sixtus Dominic Boniface

First words on Twitter: "Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis".("The times change, and we change with them")

Philosophy: "I want people to be able to get on with their lives without the government bossing them about. I'm all in favour of nannies but not the nanny state."

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