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6 September 2019

The Conservatives are taking a big risk with Jacob Rees-Mogg

This week has shown his viral potential, and not in a good way. 

By Stephen Bush

One of David Cameron’s biggest strategic objectives was to appear to be significantly less posh than he actually was, and he pretty much achieved it.

Even his rare slip-ups – like the moment when he was asked how much a loaf of bread cost and replied that he preferred to use a £100 Panasonic breadmaker – positioned him significantly lower than the social scale than he actually was. His preferred breadmaker could have been bought by a (genuinely) upper-middle-class household.

But that the gaffe resonated and still lives on at the back of people’s recollection of Cameron highlights why he was so keen to downplay his wealth and class. The persistent perception – and fear – that voters have about the Conservative party is that it is a party exclusively by and for the rich. That’s one reason why the policy that people in BritainThinks’ 2017 focus groups brought up most readily from the Tory manifesto was the pledge to bring back fox hunting. Although the same pledge was hidden in the 2015 manifesto, Cameron never amplified it, despite having gone hunting himself.

Theresa May, despite actually being from an upper-middle-class background, did amplify the pledge, which helped to contribute to the 2017 disaster. (As did another policy that voters took as a sign of posh weirdness – the backsliding on the 2015 pledge to ban the sale of ivory. The most-shared story of the election campaign related not to Corbyn, not to social care, but to the ivory ban.)

Now, if they are to get a decent parliamentary majority, they need to make inroads into constituencies that even Cameron couldn’t, where the halitosis of poshness may be even greater.

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Understand all of that and you begin to see why the biggest risk that Boris Johnson has taken electorally isn’t his Brexit strategy, but his choice of Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

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Rees-Mogg is the anti-Cameron in many ways, not just because he is a social Conservative and ardent Brexiteer, but also because, while Cameron’s political project was pretending to be less posh than he was, Rees-Mogg has done the opposite. That appeals to a part of the Conservative party and electorate that craves an authentic leader and is unfussed about poshness.

He has already gone viral once lounging on the benches of the House of Commons. And he has been embroiled in a row with the medical profession after likening a doctor who raised concerns about patient safety after a no-deal Brexit to Andrew Wakefield, who was struck off due to his role in spreading bogus concerns about the MMR vaccine.

Were I working in CCHQ, I would feel deeply uneasy about his potential to do something in a heat of an election that takes off on Facebook and defines the Conservative Party in a way that limits its electoral hopes. And it’s not clear to me what the upside is – Priti Patel, Esther McVey and Dominic Raab provide an equal amount of Brexiteer credibility, and don’t carry the same risk, while Steve Baker, who was offered a job outside the Cabinet, would have offered more Brexiteer credibility and went to an ordinary school and sounds like an ordinary bloke. 

Instead, they have opted for a course of action that carries the serious risk of giving them problems they don’t need.