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10 June 2020

How the cult of Jacob Rees-Mogg unravelled

The coronavirus crisis has further exposed the arrogance and incompetence of the Tory reactionary. 

By Martin Fletcher

It is astonishing to think that scarcely two years ago Jacob Rees-Mogg was briefly the bookies’ favourite to become the UK’s next prime minister. He was the darling of a personality cult called “Moggmentum”, the star of the Conservative Party conference, and the most popular Tory in monthly surveys of party members conducted by the website ConservativeHome.

It did not matter that he was a caricature of a toff, an MP who still communicated with his constituents by fountain pen, a Downton Abbey relic who once campaigned on the housing estates of Central Fife with his nanny. He was colourful, entertaining and a Brexit zealot whom a deranged Conservative Party regarded as a potential saviour following Theresa May’s insipid general election performance of 2017.

It is unlikely that the Leader of the House of Commons would be considered a leadership contender were Boris Johnson to fall today, for the true nature of the man has become increasingly apparent and it is not pretty.

There was his slouching full-length along the government front bench during a crucial Brexit debate last September, the embodiment of arrogant, disdainful, patrician entitlement.

There was his use of Commons privilege to denigrate a hospital consultant, David Nicholl, who had the nerve to warn that a no-deal Brexit could jeopardise the supply of vital drugs.

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There was his assertion that the Grenfell Tower fire victims should have used their “common sense”, ignored fire brigade advice and left the building. Johnson’s campaign team wisely excluded him from a general election campaign that targeted disaffected blue-collar workers.

On top of that Rees-Mogg decided to end the virtual arrangements that allowed parliament to continue working during the coronavirus lockdown, and brought MPs back to Westminster on 2 June in apparent defiance of the government’s own guidelines.

It was a shambles. MPs classified as “vulnerable” to coronavirus were disenfranchised because they could not travel. Those who could had to join a ludicrous, kilometre-long, time-wasting “Mogg Conga” to vote. 

MPs of all parties were furious, and the dangers of gathering several hundred politicians from across the country in a single building were dramatically underscored when Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, fell ill with suspected coronavirus. Had he tested positive, numerous MPs and ministers with whom he had had contact, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, would have had to self-isolate.

Rees-Mogg’s plan was clearly untenable. The government beat a swift retreat, allowing shielded MPs to ask questions remotely and vote by proxy. It is now working on a speedier system of swipe card voting, but Rees-Mogg’s stock has taken another hit.

He offered various reasons for his rush to bring MPs back. He said it would improve parliamentary scrutiny and speed the legislative programme, though he was perfectly happy to see parliament prorogued when it resisted the government’s Brexit plans last autumn. 

He argued that “voting while enjoying a sunny walk or watching television does democracy an injustice”, though disenfranchising MPs altogether clearly does not. He said MPs should set an example at a time when the government is encouraging the public to return to work, though a YouGov poll showed only 12 per cent of the public thought MPs needed to be in Westminster to vote.

His real motives almost certainly included the government’s greater ability to control backbenchers when they are physically present, and Johnson’s urgent need for vocal support during Prime Minister’s Questions.

More broadly, the saga showed the inability of an Old Etonian who has everything to understand the problems of those who do not. A man who boasts that he has never changed a nappy, Rees-Mogg has wealth, health, a nanny for his six children, two Bentleys and a London townhouse as well as his 400-year-old Somerset mansion. Many MPs presently have no childcare, rely on public transport, and either use shared flats when in London or cannot leave home for medical reasons.

For all his elaborate courtesy, Rees-Mogg’s political career has never been distinguished by compassion for the less fortunate. He has opposed positive discrimination, foreign aid, abortion, and increases in welfare benefits. He has supported zero-hours contracts, reductions in corporation and capital gains taxes, restrictions on legal aid, and the notorious “bedroom tax” on council tenants occupying homes bigger than they need. 

He has also opposed higher taxes on the rich, a “mansion tax” on homes costing more than £2m and a bankers’ bonus tax, arguing that “you alleviate poverty by trickle-down economics”. A One Nation Tory he emphatically is not.

With the economy reeling from the lockdown, he is now engaged in a particularly grotesque betrayal of the working people that Johnson’s Conservatives profess to champion. Any form of Brexit would endanger their fragile jobs, and the overstretched public services on which they rely. The no-deal Brexit that looms because the government refuses to extend the transition period would devastate them. 

It is safe to assume, however, that Rees-Mogg himself would not suffer any hardship, just as the lockdown has caused little inconvenience to his gilded life (beyond having to bring his 11-year-old daughter to his Commons office after school because the rest of his family are in Somerset). Indeed, his investment company, Somerset Capital Management, which has already opened a fund in Dublin to serve EU investors, would doubtless find a way to profit from a no-deal Brexit.