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Understanding #Moggmentum: the hollow cult of Jacob Rees-Mogg

What is behind the social media stardom of parliament’s most cartoonish toff?

“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 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.


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).

 

We shall have to take our business elsewhere.

A post shared by Jacob Rees-Mogg (@jacob_rees_mogg) on


“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.”


“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.”

Read more: Life after Milifandom – and why Ed isn’t to blame if I fail my Russian history AS-level

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”