How the two most popular Tories – Ruth Davidson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – settle big differences will define Conservative party, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
There is a relentlessness to Ruth Davidson’s antipathy for Boris Johnson that demands respect.
As befits a former Territorial Army officer, there she was again at the weekend, helicoptering into a Sunday morning political programme to do what she does best: ambush Boris.
When they faced off in the biggest live TV set piece of the EU referendum campaign, she called out his campaign as a pack of lies. Addressing the Westminster press pack in 2016, her best jokes were at his expense, and almost unprintable.
This time, speaking to ITV’s Robert Peston, the Scottish Conservative leader warned the foreign secretary was “walking a fine line” with his insistence that sticking close to EU regulations after Brexit would be “intolerable”. Publicly contradicting Johnson frustrates both the hard Brexit forces in government and the foreign secretary’s leadership ambitions – all in a day’s work. But Davidson may need to turn her attention elsewhere.
When the term ‘Moggmentum’ was coined last summer to describe the breathless enthusiasm of campus Conservative society types, it was assumed to be a heat-related illness. But it’s a measure of how limited the Tories’ options are that a Jacob Rees-Mogg leadership bid, once the preserve of snarky viral content, is now being discussed seriously.
Rees-Mogg is increasingly seen as the Conservative answer to Jeremy Corbyn: a conviction politician who is wholly unfashionable by traditional standards, and therefore perfectly captures the anti-politics moment. Confronted with the popularity of an unashamed leftist, the Tories can be forgiven their fixation with an equally unapologetic Conservative, who like Corbyn thinks his party has drifted away from its roots.
Unlike David Cameron and Theresa May, Rees-Mogg tells small-c conservatives they aren’t the problem and don’t have to change, and he’s been rewarded for that confidence boost in Tory membership surveys. In the areas that matter most – Brexit, Unionism and social policy – he also appeals to the group of MPs that have the biggest say over whether the government survives: the DUP. It’s saying something that the party of Ian Paisley helping to put the first practicing Catholic into 10 Downing Street would only make the top ten most gob-smacking political events of the past two years.
In what was seen as a nod to his popularity with the Tory masses, on 15 July last year the anachronism from North East Somerset joined Twitter with a Latin proverb. It may also have been a signal to colleagues of his ambition: three days earlier, Rees-Mogg was backed by 226 MPs in an election to the powerful Commons Treasury Select Committee chairmanship. The winner was Nicky Morgan, a Tory Remainer and critic of Theresa May who got most of her 290 votes from Labour MPs.
It was a secret ballot, but Rees-Mogg probably won handily among fellow Conservative MPs. He now chairs the powerful European Research Group, which pulls the government’s strings on Brexit, and other organs like the Bow Group are thought to be in his corner.
Ministers and Conservative MPs know that if Rees-Mogg makes it to the last round of a leadership vote, then he would likely win in a ballot of Tory members – a group whose dwindling number and ageing profile does no harm to his chances.
That likelihood grows the deeper that Ukip sinks into irrelevance. Rees-Mogg already has the backing of Nigel Farage, and his presence on a leadership ballot would see a tide of former Tories rush back in from Ukip to back a hard-Brexit enthusiast. Not so much a Corbyn-esque crisis of entryism as re-entryism.
The possibility is said to be a source of rising panic in government and among Conservative moderates, where talk focuses on how to block Rees-Mogg in the early stages of a leadership contest as MPs narrow the field of candidates in successive ballots.
Finding an alternative candidate ought to be a priority as well. In order to draw support from Rees-Mogg while retaining the backing of senior party figures, that person has to be an acceptable face of Brexit. That isn’t likely to be Johnson, but it definitely isn’t Amber Rudd either. Much may rest on whether Davidson can bring herself to back someone like Michael Gove, whose record during the EU referendum was no better than the Foreign Secretary’s.
It may not come to that. Rees-Mogg must know that appealing to a subsection of the Brexit electorate isn’t the same as convincing the country you should be in charge. He must recognise that putting the MP for the 19th century into Number 10 would put the Tories’ electoral prospects at grave risk.
With typical self-effacing charm, Rees-Mogg has publicly deflected all attempts to mark him as a leadership prospect – like another darling of the Conservative grassroots. Rather than a direct intervention by either of them, a Tory leadership contest before the next general election in 2022 is more likely to see Davidson and Rees-Mogg shaping events from a distance. In a broad field of relative unknowns, an endorsement from one of the only recognisable faces in Tory politics will be valuable currency.
However the next leadership race unfolds, the fact that two figures with such profoundly opposing views are leading players hints at a profound rupture on the horizon. When you stop and think about it, it’s difficult to believe Davidson and Rees-Mogg are in the same party. They might share a belief in the fundamental principles of conservatism, but when it comes to the awkward detail on abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage, climate change and a good deal else, there is no-man’s land between them broad enough for a private Tory culture war.
The next leadership contest won’t just be a debate about what kind of Brexit deal the UK wants, but about what kind of UK the Tories want. That debate will be an awkward one.