“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg in 2012. And the nation swooned.
It’s the longest word ever to be used in the Commons (meaning: to find something worthless, origin: Latin bantz at Eton) and it brought the MP for North East Somerset a taste of viral fame he has increasingly come to enjoy since being elected in 2010.
The clip is just one of many Rees-Mogg moments that have been fondly giffed and shared online a disproportionate amount for a right-wing Tory MP. His Instagram, which he updates with images of his posh pursuits, has a following of over 32,000.
The story of his sixth son being born, and named “Sixtus”, reached readers far beyond those with a niche political interest last week when it was covered by most mainstream papers. The Guardian called him a “Tory sex machine”, while the Mirror ran a handy guide to the eccentric names he’s given his brood.
He first came to public attention in 1997, when he ran unsuccessfully in the Labour stronghold of Central Fife – and famously campaigned with his former nanny. Driving around in a Mercedes. “A Bentley would be most unsuitable for canvassing,” he later informed the Spectator.
Now the 48-year-old MP has a “grassroots” movement called #Moggmentum behind him, a hashtag that trends every time he speaks in the Commons or posts a new picture of himself on the campaign trail. It celebrates Rees-Mogg with memes and gifs, much like Ed Miliband’s unlikely fan club in 2015, the Milifandom.
— MoggMentum (@MoggMentum) July 3, 2017
Moggmentum is supposed to be a response to Labour campaigners’ superior social media presence. It even calls for Rees-Mogg to be Tory leader. A gently jokey campaign called Ready for Mogg is gathering signatures from those who wish to see Rees-Mogg as Prime Minister. Its founder, Sam Frost, explained his appeal to the Daily Politics: “He’s a little bit eccentric; he doesn’t take himself so seriously.” The campaign has over 12,000 signatures.
— Moggnificent (@Mogg_nificent) July 11, 2017
Often described as a character out of a PG Wodehouse novel or from a bygone era, the ever suited, top-to-toe tweeded, bespectacled politician makes a virtue of his plummy accent and toffish ways.
When asked in a BBC documentary called Posh and Posher about privilege in politics, he famously described himself as a “man of the people – vox populi, vox dei”.
Rees-Mogg is an Old Etonian, Oxford-educated, the son of a former Times editor and peer, and part of an old established Somerset family. Yet the public does seem to be overlooking his upper-class credentials and finding ways to connect with him, particularly through his relationship with his children (his eldest son wears a matching double-breasted suit as they campaign together).
“There is a surprising amount of deference in some parts of North East Somerset to the fact that he and his family have been around for generations,” says local Labour councillor and charity worker Robin Moss, who ran against Rees-Mogg in the most recent election. “And there’s quite a few people who like him because he’s independent, and different – certainly not a clone MP. His son goes round with him as a sort of mini-me, wearing tweed . . . he’s a good dad in that sense, who involves his children.”
Rees-Mogg is an ardent Brexiteer and rebel, and is often wheeled out by the broadcasters for damning critiques of his own party and government. This outspokenness is part of his appeal – and gives him a media platform.
“He’s become something of a social media celebrity, and he’s been on Question Time and he’s not fazed at all,” says a fellow Tory MP. “It appears that the public like him.”
— Geo (@GE00000000) July 11, 2017
“There’s certainly an element of name recognition,” adds Moss. “He does cultivate the loveable British eccentric . . . but would you seriously want Bertie Wooster representing you in parliament?”
Conservative MPs feel the same. Although he is thought to be well-mannered and has no enemies, some believe he appears to be a backward Tory who gives off the wrong impression of the party. Others are simply unsure of what he stands for.
Although there is a gently satirical movement to propel him to leadership, this isn’t being “taken seriously at the moment – but who knows?” I hear from one Tory MP. “He does appear, in terms of his lifestyle, to be out-of-step with the majority of public opinion. Becoming leader requires other attributes which, at the moment, he doesn’t show much in the way of developing.”
Facebook: Reem memes with a right wing theme.
There is a sense on all sides, however, that Rees-Mogg’s new-found social media fame is no accident. He wants a degree of power; he is running to be the new Treasury select committee chair, after all. “I don’t think the personality cult thing’s by chance,” a colleague tells me. “He has an honest ambition. This isn’t something new; he’s been a young fogey since he was born. We happen to live in an age where people who appear to be different [are popular]. It’s partly self-propelled.”
Although Moss, his Somerset rival, also believes Rees-Mogg “plays up to the MP for the Eighteenth Century” image, he did not attack this during the campaign. “Dan Morris [the former Labour MP who lost to Rees-Mogg] made the mistake in 2010, and our candidate in 2015, of being personal,” he says. This involved using “some slightly odd photos, concentrating on the nanny”, and it backfired. “It really gets up people’s noses, understandably. Don’t do the personal . . . It doesn’t work and it’s not right.”
Indeed, in the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election – when Labour activists attempted to toff-shame the Tory candidate Edward Timpson by chasing him around in top hats – the campaign ended in defeat.
Facebook: Reem memes with a right wing theme.
Like other privileged candidates before him (Nigel Farage comes to mind), Rees-Mogg is able to appear an “anti-establishment” outsider, despite his background. “He was never part of the Cameroon circle” despite being an Old Etonian, says a Tory MP. “[He] didn’t fit in with their world view.”
Rees-Mogg’s voting record, and which bills he chooses to filibuster, undermine his persona as a loveable toff. He voted against same-sex marriage, has talked out bills to scrap the bedroom tax, teach first aid in schools, and others, voiced support for Donald Trump, and called for his party to collaborate with Ukip.
If he wishes to win over his fellow MPs, these views may cause him problems on both sides of the House. “My guess is distance must provide a bit of soft focus. Scrutiny and focus would not do him any favours,” says Moss, who made his campaign against him “all about how he voted and how he filibustered – things like the rape clause in the benefits legislation”.
But in a world with Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and Donald Trump as US President, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s personality cult may yet avoid the public’s floccinaucinihilipilification.