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16 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Jacob Rees-Mogg shows just how much the British love a caricature

Corbyn’s survival brings new vitality to the Tory extreme: Labour are doing it, perhaps we should too.

By Ed Smith

Some bookmakers have Jacob Rees-Mogg as favourite to be the next prime minister. It’s a bad time to make predictions but I think they’re right. The possibility – the danger, alternatively – is real.

There is a mood inside a wobbling team that many sportspeople will recognise: frustration with weighing compromises, the desire to be around certainty in the hope that it proves catching (even if the certainty is wrong-headed), an impatience with struggling on as things are, and above all putting internal clarity ahead of effectiveness out on the pitch. Put simply: at least we’ll have a plan, even if we end up losing badly. Extreme lack of confidence induces a kind of vulnerability and panic: please, someone, just tell me to jump and I’ll do it.

Something similar is happening inside the Conservative Party. Jacob Rees-Mogg, as a social conservative with considerable intellectual self-confidence and a gift for exploiting the English susceptibility to caricature, is potentially the chief beneficiary of that panicky mood.

There is a strange internal logic about the rise of Rees-Mogg, connected to both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s survival and ideological confidence, mad as it sounds, brings new vitality to the Conservative extreme: Labour are doing it, perhaps we should, too. No wonder Rees-Mogg has carefully praised Corbyn’s “integrity”. As Stephen Bush recently explored in these pages, Rees-Mogg is being positioned as the appropriate and symmetrical cure to the Corbyn problem.

The parallel deepens given that the founding principle of Rees-Mogg’s ideology, his version of revealed socialist truth, is the issue of the day: Europe. In July last year, I argued reluctantly that “Brexit must anoint one of its own”. As the negotiations entered the endgame, I speculated, there would be a pull from several directions towards a serious Brexiteer fronting the process. Remainers would begin to recoil from the political fallout. And Brexiteers would demand greater purity. Keen to make a clean break, Rees-Mogg would certainly approach Brexit with a spring in his step, and confidence is easily mistaken for effectiveness.

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Where Boris Johnson’s persona is obviously a useful construction, Rees-Mogg’s is less clearly a conscious act. He has been eccentric and fogeyish since childhood. A personal style that may have begun in childish defiance has hardened into adult playfulness. That’s an odd kind of progress: a super-serious child giving way to an adult with a highly developed streak of childishness.

Yet it may appeal to the English weakness for deference nostalgia, an imagined past of gentlemanly public-spiritedness and heavy wool double-breasted suits. If Rees-Mogg turns out to have wider appeal, this will be central. Just as Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person, Rees-Mogg plays to the gallery as an exaggerated, gentlemanly toff. His intended audience is not gentlemanly toffs, of course, any more than Trump’s pitch was to serious billionaires.

Trump’s election reveals that significant numbers of struggling Americans are still impressed by someone who looks very rich: his gleeful vulgarity resonated with the America we’d pretended wasn’t there. A similar Rees-Mogg effect, if it materialises, would suggest that a nostalgic and class-bound idea of Englishness persists more than liberals care to admit.

That leads to another question: just how serious is he? Public figures with a hint of caricature enjoy a structural advantage: they can hide behind the suggestion they are partly joking. In one context, Rees-Mogg can ham it up. In another, he can play the serious ex-investor turned political intellectual. So was he joking when he took his nanny canvassing on the campaign trail? That’s up to you. In the classic tradition of grand-country-house eccentricity, it’s unclear to what extent Rees-Mogg is sending himself up.

Rees-Mogg’s brand of traditional conservatism may not be popular, but it does give him a framework for attacking liberal orthodoxy, which is certainly popular. His portrayal of the globalising elite as the explanation of social problems – the liberals abandoned you and let you down – taps into post-financial crisis political logic: give us politicians who tell us that this isn’t our fault. As a leader for angry times, Rees-Mogg could be all too modern.

By accident or design, Rees-Mogg unites establishment reassurance with anti-establishment positioning. Where Johnson talks about having his cake and eating it, Rees-Mogg just gets on with it. Before he can win over the country, though, he has to win over the party. It’s all too possible – he only has to be in the final two MPs put forward to the party membership.

Some perceptive observers have likened the state of British party politics to the circumstances facing hermit crabs: the declining party is the shell, and the disempowered rump of sensible centrists are the crab. Why don’t they just accept shelter from another organisation? If your old home is no longer appropriate, why not move?

However, look at the same analogy from the opposite point of view: with a significant constituency threatening to flee, think of the gratitude directed towards anyone who stays put. It is the Conservative Party, after all, and Rees-Mogg is very conservative. That brings a kind of reassurance.

Very conservative, in my lexicon, is not the same thing as a real conservative, but you can see how the two might be conflated. As party membership declines and more strident voices gain power, parties become increasingly out of step with the electoral majorities they are supposed to seek. In the absence of intellectual patience – a common trait inside organisations under strain – the playfully extreme becomes indistinguishable from the genuinely authentic. 

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist