History has shown plenty of examples of popular wisdom being wrong and the rank outsider winning, so don’t write off Jacob Rees-Mogg just yet says Bill Jamieson
In politics today nothing surprises: Donald Trump as US President; Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader – and former First Minister Alex Salmond as a comedian of dubious taste on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
What more could amaze us? Only consider this: Jacob Rees-Mogg as leader of the Conservative Party.
Not all that long ago the idea would be laughed out of court. The old Etonian classicist with the plummy voice and double breasted suit? The parliamentary candidate who once famously fought the Labour stronghold of Central Fife with his former nanny, driving round in a Mercedes? When questioned on this, his reply was sardonic but all too typical: “A Bentley would be most unsuitable for canvassing.”
But Jacob Rees-Mogg as the Tory leader, and antidote to Corbyn, is a joke no longer. While he foreswears such ambition, a campaign touting him as the next Prime Minister is gaining traction – or as his supporters call it, “Moggmentum”.
What explains the paradox of a character as unlikely as Rees-Mogg now seriously being considered as a Tory leadership contender while he defies every attribute considered vital to succeed in politics today?
He is not “of the people”. He has no “everyman” credentials. He exudes privilege. He is no populist. So how has he become, to use a term that would never cross his lips, so “hot”? Two years ago he was seen as someone who had stumbled out of Downton Abbey with a train of liveried butlers. Is he not straight out of Lord Snooty and his Pals? The very opposite of the impression that the new progressive, classless Conservatism has so assiduously sought to foster?
But be prepared for surprise. On social media and the internet – hardly the theatres in which he could be expected to excel, Jacob Rees-Mogg is gaining support. Not only are dozens of Facebook pages devoted to Rees-Mogg - the biggest have tens of thousands of likes - but after recently joining Instagram he is now said to be more popular on this platform than the personal account of Prime Minister Theresa May.
In the last few weeks, the odds on Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming the next Conservative leader have tumbled from 50-to-1 to 10-to-1. This puts him ahead of Ruth Davidson and Michael Gove. In the Westminster bubble the names most touted as a successor to Theresa May are the ‘big beasts’ such as David Davis, Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson. But in the Conservative grassroots there is a hunger for a candidate who still thinks and talks – well, like an actual conservative.
The frequent criticism is that he is too posh to succeed. Yet little of this seems to curb his rising popularity. On the contrary – it may be working to feed it.
Even opponents concede he is eloquent, witty, well-informed – and principled. As the right of centre Spectator magazine recently noted, “Even sections of the elusive and generally very left-wing youth vote appear to be warming to the idea that our next prime minister shouldn’t be (alleged) man-of-the-people Corbyn but yet another plummy, Old Etonian millionaire…”
And this, let’s note, when the unashamedly Left Jeremy Corbyn has an eight-point lead in the opinion polls. Surely, the Spectator pundit added, “Britain has had enough of conservatism. Actually, the word they use is ‘austerity’ but it amounts to the same thing. So widespread is the panic in the party that even its more fiscally responsible luminaries are coming round to the idea that, from university tuition to the NHS, the only way to beat Corbyn is to talk and spend like socialists.”
This is what makes the phenomenon of Moggmentum all the more noteworthy. And I suspect it may have less to do with his political leadership credentials than his singular public style – almost a counter culture – that has attracted raucous young internet bloggers and quieter Tory folk alike. The fact that he is not a natural creature of social media and the Twittersphere adds to his appeal.
And that appeal is not without power: the ability to debate clearly and without anger or hysteria; free of the commonplace party political buzzwords – that exhausted, vacuous rhetoric of the platform hack; a cultured, succinct and eloquent debater.
It is widely thought many Scots naturally recoil from this persona. But my suspicion is that many here find him as refreshing as his growing band of supporters down south. We may be quick to mock the Somerset tweedery and indeed anyone who names his son Sixtus. But can it be said that we prefer the relentless in-tide of estuary English and the Glastonbury chanting of ‘Ooooh, Jeremy Corbyn”? I sense there is barely a debating platform in Scotland that would not welcome him as a serious and articulate contributor. That he is now a crowd-puller adds to the event.
So what is Moggmentum at heart? Critics quickly point to a slate of viewpoints and positions from which the liberal progressive Left instinctively recoils. In the Commons he has a record of voting against equality and human rights; he has voted for reduced welfare benefits; voted against equal gay rights; voted against climate change; voted for university tuition fees – and greatest sin of all among the metropolitan bien pensants and the rocking holy-rollers of the alt-Left - he is an ardent Brexiteer.
Yet for many on the Right it is precisely this list of forbidden fruits, removed by ban and anathema from the diet sheet of acceptable Conservative thought by Matron May, that moves them to a barely suppressed banging of spoons in appreciation. Is there a nectar more potent than that officially proscribed?
And the rise of Rees-Mogg reflects the fact that he articulates clear Conservative beliefs – low state interference, free enterprise, personal liberty within a framework of tradition, self-discipline and family values, low taxes — from which the party’s High Command, those timorous beasties of Come-and-Go Mansions, have shrunk.
The appeal of Rees-Mogg is also a recoil from what has gone before: the slippery, dissembling charm of the Blair-Cameron era, the deployment of fine words while meaning something else; the politics without root or principle; and, above all, the disdain for history, the belief that its caution and restraint has little use or lesson. Today it seems there is no wisdom from which we can learn, no view that counts other than the populist chant of the hour and the on-message soundbite sanctified by that right-on audience emote – the hoops of delight.
Against this there seems not a chance in hell that Jacob Rees-Mogg will ever be a party leader. Is not politics a raucous business? Counter culture can only get you so far when the Demos seems to sweep all before it.
But history is replete with examples of where the consensus view has proved wrong and the rank outsider comes from behind. Who can say with confidence that there is no surprise in politics, in the age of Corbyn, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump? Beware of laughing off the antidote.