Jacob Rees-Mogg is no less conceptual art than Gilbert & George walking around Whitechapel

Rees-Mogg, in his pinstriped shirt, is a profoundly unserious man pretending to be serious.

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“I’m not terribly agricultural. I do have a few sheep in Somerset. Three sheep to keep the grass down…” Jacob Rees-Mogg muses on the nature of farming, presenting a one-off Sunday LBC call-in (10am, 18 February). He is responding to a text declaring the nation a “flock of sheep wandering in the wilderness needing a shepherd”. I get that. It’s about Rees-Mogg, right?

Some of the two hours was given over to people phoning up and telling him he ought to stand against Theresa May, and Rees-Mogg fielding it all in a tone of gracious-if-weary dismissal that supposedly belongs to the upper classes. The British have a fatal tendency to think that an air of bemused disdain is a repository of “old wisdom”. And they mistake a perceived sardonic willingness to scrap verbally as “common sense”. Although there wasn’t much memorable scrapping here. Rees-Mogg was studiedly unflappable when he challenged ousted Ukip leader Henry Bolton about his love life (“It’s a bit too early to say what’s going to happen, Jacob”) but even that sounded rather monotone.

Far more fascinating was the view on the webcam set up in Rees-Mogg’s house, a frothing bouquet of red roses in the background (had he been spoiling wife Helena?) and what looked like an unbeautiful metal ashtray of the type they used to set on the tables of Spudulike. And Rees-Mogg in a pinstriped shirt, pretending to be the sort of person with the intelligence and charisma to appear boring and uncharismatic. When really (this is the key to JRM’s extreme peculiarity) he is impersonating all of that – he’s no less a conceptual art work than Gilbert & George walking around Whitechapel. It’s the self-awareness that makes him disorientating. “I vote Lib Dem,” admitted a caller, “sorry, Jacob, no disrespect to you.” An awkward pause. “O…K,” replied Rees-Mogg, squashing any drama.

Pedantically, he announced the time as “ten-fourteen – and 45 seconds”. Which sounded strange, more than anything else:  a profoundly unserious man pretending to be serious. Rees-Mogg isn’t Donald Trump. He’s not a paradigm shift. He’s merely Michael Howard (but at a time when we least need it.)

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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