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4 September 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:37am

Why it matters that Jacob Rees-Mogg was reclining in the House of Commons

By Anoosh Chakelian

As MPs geared up to defeat Boris Johnson in a momentous vote last night, one parliamentarian in particular seemed less than bothered.

Jacob Rees-Mogg decided to honour the gravest political crisis of our times by reclining on the government’s front bench.

Lounging across around two and a half seats, the new Leader of the House of Commons and arch-Brexiteer Tory MP for North East Somerset appeared almost horizontal.

Elbow hooked over the side, eyelids heavy, crossed leg lolling over his knee, he very quickly caught the attention of fellow MPs.

While some yelled “sit up!” and “shame”, the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas accused Rees-Mogg during the debate of being “contemptuous of this House and of the people” with his “body language throughout this evening”.

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Labour MP Anna Turley tweeted a picture of the reclining Rees-Mogg from the chamber with the caption: “The physical embodiment of arrogance, entitlement, disrespect and contempt for our parliament.”

The image went viral on social media. Rees-Mogg’s horizontal pose was photoshopped onto graphs about the pound crashing and the government’s majority plummeting:

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This soon cut through to mainstream news coverage, with the major newspapers and broadcasters running videos and pictures of his stance – and a mention on BBC Radio 4’s flagship political show, the Today programme. (I knew it had reached beyond the Twitter bubble when it was the first thing my mum mentioned in a text this morning.)

The erstwhile backbench rebel has favoured this pose in past debates, but it is far more noticeable now he’s been promoted to the front bench. Some supporters tried to defend him, suggesting he was leaning closer to one of the speakers built into the back of the benches, or was trying to duck the TV cameras.

But his face is nowhere near the closest speaker on that bench, and ITV News asked Rees-Mogg himself about his posture; he said he was merely “sitting comfortably”.

Beyond the meme-able nature of a cartoonish toff lounging around in a non-casual setting (“Paint me like one of your French girls” is a favourite Titanic reference on a similar image from a previous debate), why has reclining Rees-Mogg resonated? Why is the image so poignant?

First, because it feeds into one of the most unpalatable aspects of this government for its opponents: upper-class entitlement.

Rees-Mogg is an old Etonian, son of a former Times editor and peer, and part of an old established Somerset family. Now helming government business in the Commons in a party led by fellow old Etonian Boris Johnson, the out-of-touch and uber-posh nature of the UK’s current leadership is striking.

So how can sitting a certain way say anything about class?

“We write about ‘embodied cultural capital’ – and I think he [Rees-Mogg] is a perfect example of that, and there are elements here of posture and attitude that really reflect this idea,” says Sam Friedman, an associate professor of sociology at LSE who has researched such phenomena in his book, The Class Ceiling.

This is the hard-to-pin-down cultural sway we derive not only from educational qualifications, but in ascribed behaviours and dispositions.

“If you come from an extremely privileged background, as he does, it manifests as this slightly extraordinary belief that you have extra right to social space,” observes Friedman. “There are so many fascinating ways that tends to manifest – sometimes it’s about people speaking for too long. In this case, it’s literally about how you manoeuvre your body to signal your place in that context.”

It seems Rees-Mogg’s supreme confidence in adopting a casual, unconventional pose in such a serious setting (both in terms of the physical chamber and the gravity of the Brexit crisis) jars with ordinary viewers. It’s as if his family and educational credentials have made him feel he owns the place.

“When there’s a commonality between the culture of a particular background and the culture of an occupation, it often manifests as an embodied confidence around how you can be, and how emboldened you are to play with the rules of the game in that environment,” says Friedman.

“It’s a sense of being able to feel so confident in the way you occupy this professional space that you can go against the formal rules.”

He believes the image will be “iconic”, and some political commentators have warned the Tories it could end up on opposition campaign leaflets come election time.

Indeed, one of the Conservative Party’s key vulnerabilities among the public is its image as a “party of the rich”. This reputation was something David Cameron – also an old Etonian – tried to shake off during his leadership, hence his attempt to build a family man, “call me Dave” image of himself.

The concern persists. During the pseudo-grassroots “Moggmentum” push for Rees-Mogg to take on the Tory leadership in July 2017, there was genuine unease among some colleagues about his rising profile (appearing on Question Time et al).

“He does appear, in terms of his lifestyle, to be out-of-step with the majority of public opinion,” a Tory MP told me at the time, fretting about the image he was giving off of the party.

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior adviser, is all too aware of this problem. “People think, and by the way I think most people are right: ‘the Tory party is run by people who basically don’t care about people like me’… Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people. They don’t care about the NHS. And the public has kind of cottoned on to that,” he told Conservative MPs at a conference in 2017.

“To me, it’s quite a risky move from a class point-of-view, in the sense that it reinforces a lot of stereotypes about entitlement, and how entitlement manifests,” says Friedman. “Part of the outrage here is that there’s a norm culturally that politicians are expected to play out, in terms of their self-presentation. And he has sort of gone beyond the pale there, in flouting those norms.”

I have contacted Rees-Mogg and his office for a response, but have yet to hear back.