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Theresa May: the hollow PM

How the beleagured premier has been left exposed as the Tories are devastated by the Brexit plague.

The concept of luck is partly connected to the idea of justice. If someone is deemed unlucky, the implication is that they deserved better. Misfortune is weighed against reasonable expectations. So has Theresa May, in that context, been unlucky? After her traumatic conference speech in Manchester, dreadful bad luck was the defence that her allies understandably put forward. The cough, the collapsing set behind her, the woeful security that allowed a prankster to get so close and loiter for so long – all these things, on one level, were simply unlucky. The longer-term circumstances suggest that her luck will only get worse: a Conservative Party in disarray, thin on talent, thinner on loyalty.

Yet May seems even more snookered on the truly important thing. Having ostensibly campaigned for Remain, she now heads a government that has committed itself to achieving Brexit – and all this without a majority in the House of Commons.

That the Prime Minister battled on and finished her speech, sympathisers argued, was a mark of her sense of duty and resilience. “The old girl made it,” announced the front page of the Daily Mail, casting her as a struggling but gallant racehorse desperately searching for the finish line. It reminded me of a quip by Steve Waugh, the ruthless Australian cricket captain: “There’s room for pity in sport… but not much.”

The verdict that May was “unlucky” shouldn’t be nodded through without scrutiny. The spectacle of her suffering at Manchester was poignant. At times, I found it unbearable to watch: anyone who has performed in public, even on much smaller stages and for lower stakes, would have felt sympathy and concern. But professional sympathy? With each week, the question increasingly becomes not so much “How has May fallen so far?” but “How did she rise so high?” Yes, May’s recent career seems unlucky. Taken as a whole, however, the truth may be the reverse.

May has made much of her “competence”. How does her track record stack up against that self-assessment? Consider the timing of the triggering of Article 50; the Supreme Court saga; the cultish tone of a general election campaign that was ill-suited to her personality; the way she allowed her advisers to take the blame afterwards; her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, leading not to new loyalty but to serial disloyalty.

What about another strand of bad luck – the idea that Brexit has scuppered May, as it appears to have destroyed all its figureheads, one by one? Brexit seems better suited as a popular movement than a coherent policy, with dangerous consequences for those who try to make it the latter. In previous New Statesman articles, I have called this effect “the Brexit plague”: “Politicians have not ridden to power on the back of Brexit; Brexit has ridden to power on the back of them… Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them.” The Conservative Party has suffered the worst epidemic. Even a party historically adept at survival and adaptation has found no remedy. Brexit continues to tear it apart. Given the extreme difficulty of the negotiations and May’s weak grip on power, should we mark down the Prime Minister as just another victim of the Brexit malady?

On one level, we could. May’s attempts to rebrand herself with an undersized domestic agenda were always doomed by Brexit in the foreground. A wedge of cash for first-time buyers, adding to a scheme that inflates house prices still further; a sop to Conservative free-marketeers that left the impression that May neither believes in nor quite understands market principles; something about the “British dream” that didn’t quite take flight – a few trifles when set against the scale and significance of Brexit.

Look closer and it gets even worse for the luck thesis. After all, Brexit first made May before unmaking her. In that context, is it bad luck if the Brexit debacle now takes the prize away?

Instead of rogue bad luck, there is an alternative interpretation: a career plan that has gone horribly wrong.

Remember that during the most important British political conversation of modern times, Theresa May said, in effect, nothing. By being non-committal, she kept her post-referendum options open.

At the time, I felt that this almost disqualified her from becoming leader. You have to earn power, not just win it. Perhaps wrongly, I then wavered on this point during the apparent calm after the referendum but before the general election campaign. After such heated partisanship, there was an appetite for May’s cooler tone. Perhaps her non-committal stance, I wondered, was better understood as an Oakeshottian sense of proportion?

However, there comes a point when decisions must be made and explained. Here, May’s failures in office downgrade her performance beforehand. It looks now as though May exhausted all her strategies in negotiating the Brexit referendum rather than Brexit itself.

Boris Johnson once joked that he wouldn’t mind becoming prime minister if “the ball came loose at the back of the scrum”. May followed the Johnson plan much better than he ever did. Unlike Johnson, May recognised that she would be quicker to grab the ball if she disentangled herself from the scrum.

It has become commonplace to argue that David Cameron, by calling a referendum to appease Eurosceptics in his own tribe, put careerist party politics above the needs of the country. The same charge could apply, in a different context, to May. She did little to preserve Britain’s membership of the EU – at least Cameron tried – while skilfully positioning herself to achieve power in the aftermath.

You begin to wonder how May spent the long hours in which other Remainers were trying to keep Britain in the EU. You also wonder how unlucky May appears to the Cameroons who, searching for heavyweight allies, couldn’t find her when they needed help.

Analogies drawn from sport can be simplistic. But I have noticed a recurrent problem for new captains in sport that may be relevant here. If a new captain is perceived to have been hedging and self-serving during the previous regime – especially towards the previous leader – it rebounds against him or her in office. Unless power is used effectively straight away, questions grow about how power was won in the first place. Luck and justice, once again, can be intertwined.

***

Earlier this autumn, the Prime Minister was interviewed by Jonathan Agnew on the BBC’s Test Match Special. Sometimes apparently unpolitical interviews can be the most revealing. We heard a person, as well as a politician, bereft of confidence. At times, May seemed unable to achieve even a base level of conversational fluency.

May has said that she is a lifelong cricket fan and I don’t doubt her. How easy it should have been, then, for her to provide some colour to accompany that theme: her relationship with the game, a light sketch of a hero or two, why the sport engages her – anything, anything at all. This aspect of the exchange was, in effect, an open goal for any professional politician. Yet nothing emerged except awkwardness, fear and defensiveness.

This cannot be explained away as a reluctance to “spin”, or contempt for the superficial, or evidence of her favouring substance over style. There was a sense of desperation, of someone who had lost a map and couldn’t find her way without it.

At times, it felt like watching a bowler or golf putter suffering from the yips. The term “yips”, literally speaking, describes the inability to perform what are normally routine tasks. May was saying things but no meaning emerged. She spoke but failed to communicate. (Something similar happened to her at times on the Manchester platform.) In the empty spaces where conversation would usually have developed, there was a hint of righteous dismay – I’m speaking, can’t you see that, I’m doing my duty, what more do you want?

It isn’t easy to strike a balance between light and serious, especially when you are under pressure. But it is inconceivable that John Major, who experienced some torrid spells as prime minister, would have failed to transmit warmth and energy in a similar position. He would have shown us his love for the game rather than just telling us it existed. In the same interview slot, Ed Miliband was strikingly warm and open to mischief; David Cameron was notably crisp and to the point.

What if May simply has little to say about unserious matters? This would be a stronger defence if she excelled at discussing serious matters. The alternative looms: she has little to say about anything. Nor is this just a patch of poor form from which the Prime Minister is likely to re-emerge. Like a singer-songwriter whose new bad album exposes the clever production devices that sustained the older and better ones, May has found that her current struggles have seeped into her back catalogue. We have all known reluctant talkers and read great depth into their pauses. Subsequent banalities, when they emerge, downgrade the earlier silences.

During May’s interview on Test Match Special and again during her agonising conference speech, I found myself wondering not how she managed to perform calamitously in a general election but how she achieved such a huge lead in the opinion polls beforehand. Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, rhetorically inverted the idea of May’s rotten luck: “Her career has been kissed with outrageous fortune.”

It is surely the ascent, not the descent, that demands analysis. I, too, overrated her at the peak of her popularity, mainly because I warmed to the idea of a prime minister who appeared reluctant to pander to the 24-hour news cycle.

In reality, May’s secretiveness was being artfully repackaged as contempt for the shallowness of “insta-news” culture. That was brilliant spin by her much maligned strategists: keep quiet and call it steely rectitude. Instead of being the architects of an election defeat, perhaps May’s former inner circle – Nick Timothy and others – pulled off an incredible heist. They took her to the highest office in the land, then made her look imperious without her saying or doing very much at all. The conference debacle showed what May looks like without the people who created “Mayism”: no one to protect an ailing leader from a pointless and exhausting cycle of interviews in the days before her big speech; no one to create a narrative in the conference speech itself.

***

What about the argument that Theresa May is now soldiering on, drawing on her sense of duty and public service? I don’t doubt the value of those qualities, nor that the Prime Minister possesses them. Yet the call of duty, in the absence of much else to say, begins to look like a final reason to cling to power.

Mayism, even when it seemed to be working, suffered from a common failure in leadership: defining the project largely in opposition to what has come before. Even during “peak May”, the central message was that she wasn’t David Cameron, that her conservatism was somehow more properly rooted (hence her “citizen of nowhere” dog whistle a year ago).

As with Gordon Brown’s obsession with not being Tony Blair, May and her circle appeared to be so preoccupied with slighting the previous regime – notionally her own side – that she failed to articulate a positive vision. The purge of the Cameroons doesn’t look so steely today. On the rare occasions when May has been decisive, her judgement looks poor.

The prospect now arises of some genuinely bad luck. The reluctance to punish someone for superficial bad luck – a natural sentiment after May’s ordeal on the conference stage – may overshadow the Conservative Party’s more urgent duty: to find the best available prime minister. Sympathy is not a strategy, and pity is not a policy.

On this final point, there are worrying signs of a different kind. There is talk in Conservative circles about “a new kind of leader… social media this… the under-40s that…” But how about a simpler agenda? Instead of reducing the available types, seek quality: the best person to do the job, the superior candidate.

After all, being tonally different from the previous incumbent doesn’t translate into being up to the job. We have just learned that, all too painfully. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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The polite extremist: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seemingly unstoppable rise

A Brexit ultra and profound reactionary, the eccentric MP is a strong contender to be the next prime minister. How dangerous is he?

Jacob Rees-Mogg calls it “God’s own country” – that swathe of rural Somerset south of Bath and Bristol where he was raised, and that he now represents in parliament. It is easy to see why the Tory backbencher, who conceivably could become prime minister before too long, loves it so much. When not in his Mayfair town house, or dwelling in some glorious imagined past, he, his wife and their six young children live in Gournay Court, a splendid 400-year-old mansion in the picturesque village of West Harptree at the foot of the Mendip Hills.

A short drive down the Chew River valley in one of his two vintage Bentleys, along narrow lanes flanked by neat hedgerows and pretty stone cottages, takes him back to Hinton Blewett, where he grew up in the Old Rectory with views across rolling farmland. A few miles beyond that is Ston Easton Park, an imposing Georgian pile with landscaped grounds that is now a luxury hotel. There, young Jacob – fourth of the five children of William Rees-Mogg, the distinguished former editor of the Times – spent the earliest years of his life, and was taught the Catholic catechism by his governess.

This is the storybook England of great estates, farms and elegant villages clustered around ancient, steepled churches. Here, the young Rees-Mogg was marinated from birth in English history and tradition. And now, aged 48, he would doubtless consider himself the embodiment of traditional English values.

He has never been seen (except perhaps by his wife) in anything other than a suit and tie. He speaks in sonorous Edwardian English and is unfailingly courteous. To be born British, he says, is “to win first prize in the lottery of life”. Not long ago he asked the House of Commons: “What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born Englishman [than] to listen to our national anthem… to listen to those words that link us to our sovereign who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history.” The Economist recently described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit”.

But Rees-Mogg’s many foes insist his values are those of a zealot, not those of modern Britain such as moderation, tolerance, inclusivity and compassion for the needy. His critics like him as a person and enjoy his intelligence, humour and self-deprecation, but contend that his old-school charm and civility mask extreme, doctrinaire positions not just on Brexit, but on almost every other social and economic issue including abortion, welfare and climate change. Rees-Mogg certainly has no time for “One Nation” or “compassionate” Conservatism, or for the “modernising” project begun by David Cameron. He unashamedly champions what he calls “full-blooded Toryism”. He has gained a passionate following among young Tories for whom – in an age of technocratic career politicians – the fact he is a character with  strong beliefs appears more important than what those beliefs may be. But older, more centrist members of the party are appalled.

“You would only elect him leader of the Conservative Party if you didn’t want to win an election ever again,” one grandee and former cabinet minister told me.

“I couldn’t stay in a party led by somebody like him,” said Anna Soubry, the prominent backbench Remainer, earlier this month. Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, has said the same, adding: “He’s not the modern face of the Tory party I and colleagues are desperate to prove is out there.”

Matthew Parris, the commentator and former Tory MP, was even blunter in the Times: “For the 21st-century Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock. His manners are perfumed but his opinions are poison. Rees-Mogg is quite simply an unfailing, unbending, unrelenting reactionary.”

Rees-Mogg declined the New Statesman’s requests for an interview for this profile, citing a lack of time. However, he did find time last year for an hour-long podcast interview with Breitbart, the ultra-right-wing US website that helped to propel Donald Trump into the White House. Host James Delingpole introduced Rees-Mogg as his “most exciting guest ever” and “the sexiest thing from a right-wing perspective in British politics”. Rees-Mogg, an early supporter of Trump, also found time before Christmas to meet Steve Bannon, the US president’s former chief ideologue, in a Mayfair hotel. Raheem Kassam, the former Ukip luminary who brokered the meeting, said “the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond”.

***

It may not be his fault, but Rees-Mogg has led a relentlessly privileged life. He spent his early years as a pupil at Westminster Under School, which educates boys aged seven to 13. While there, he played the stock markets using a £50 inheritance from a relative, standing up at the General Electric Company’s annual meeting and castigating a board – that included his father – for the firm’s “pathetic” dividend. A contemporary newspaper photograph showed the precocious 12-year-old solemnly reading the Financial Times beside his teddy bears.

He proceeded, inevitably, to Eton, and from there to Trinity College, Oxford, to read history. An ardent young Thatcherite who had imbibed Euroscepticism at his father’s knee, he became president of the university’s Conservative Association, debated at the Oxford Union, and would nip down to London to help out at Conservative Central Office. He had his own telephone installed in his college room. He incurred mockery for suggesting students should wear a “full morning suit”, and embraced the mortarboard – “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.” One former student who knew him at university called him a “ghastly snob”. After graduating, he worked briefly for the Rothschild investment bank. He then spent three years with Lloyd George Investment in Hong Kong, before returning to London to run some of that firm’s emerging market funds. Surprisingly, since Rees-Mogg so passionately supports the reckless gamble with the British economy that is Brexit, a recent FT investigation described him as a cautious investor whose performance was “less than stellar”.

In 2007, Rees-Mogg and several colleagues left Lloyd George to set up Somerset Capital Management – one source of his estimated £100m personal fortune. Another source is his wife, Helena, the only child of the former Tory MP Somerset de Chair and Lady Juliet Tadgell, an heiress and former Marchioness of Bristol who is said to be worth £45m. Rees-Mogg met Helena while campaigning for a referendum on the EU constitution. He proposed in front of one of the half-dozen Van Dyck paintings that hang in her family’s stately home, Bourne Park in Kent. They were married in 2007 before 650 guests in Canterbury Cathedral, the archbishop having authorised a Tridentine mass in ecclesiastical Latin in light of Rees-Mogg’s fervent Catholicism. The couple now have six children aged between seven months and ten, all bearing the names of Catholic popes and saints. Following the birth of Sixtus last July, Rees-Mogg admitted he had never changed a nappy, adding: “Nanny does it brilliantly.”


Rees-Mogg as a child. Photo: Bill Cross / Associated Newspapers / Rex

The first recorded instance of him mingling at length with common folk came when he was selected, somewhat improbably, as the Conservative candidate for Central Fife in 1997. He toured council estates with the aforementioned nanny, Veronica Crook, in tow (she was his nanny, too, before looking after his children). Something was lost in translation, however, for Rees-Mogg came a distant third, securing just 3,669 votes. “The number of voters in my favour dropped as soon as I opened my mouth,” he said.

Four years later, Rees-Mogg stood again, this time in The Wrekin in Shropshire. He came second with 38 per cent of the vote, down 2 per cent on the Tories’ performance in 1997, despite a small uptick in the party’s national vote. Thereafter, the Kensington and Chelsea  Conservatives rejected him for “lacking the common touch”, but he was eventually selected as the Tory candidate in his native North East Somerset, despite opposition from the party leadership. Cameron allegedly felt Rees-Mogg’s exceedingly patrician mien would undermine his efforts to modernise the party. The then Tory leader certainly encouraged Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, the party’s unsuccessful 2010 candidate in neighbouring Somerset and Frome, to shorten her name on the campaign trail to Nancy Mogg, but she refused.

Jacob Rees-Mogg was elected to parliament in 2010, with a majority of 4,914 that he has since doubled. He and his family spend about three weekends a month in the constituency. He responds to constituents by letter, not email, because – an aide told me – “he thinks people should get their own personally signed reply”. Even his political opponents concede that he is a diligent constituency MP, though they question his ability to understand the less affluent.

“I’ve always found him very polite. He obviously cares about his family,” said Robin Moss, Labour’s candidate in the constituency last year. “But he hasn’t the remotest idea of what it’s like to live on Universal Credit or be homeless. He’s never put his hand in his pocket and realised there’s nothing there.”

***

At first, Rees-Mogg was regarded in Westminster as a colourful, eccentric and entertaining MP, but hardly leadership material. He broke the record for the longest word uttered in the Commons chamber with “floccinaucinihilipilification” (the action or habit of estimating something as worthless). He called for Somerset to be allowed to set its own time zone, as it could before all British times were harmonised in the 1840s. He suggested council officials wear bowler hats to identify themselves as “thorough-going bureaucrats”. He joined the all-party parliamentary group for historic vehicles. He wore a top hat to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. In one interview, “the honourable member for the 18th century” struggled to name a single pop group, and he began appearing on Have I Got News for You as some sort of amusing relic from the age of Downton Abbey.

Occasionally, he went too far. In 2013 he addressed a dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, which favoured the voluntary repatriation of black immigrants. That was “clearly a mistake”, he admitted. He also angered his party leadership by supporting an electoral arrangement with Ukip ahead of the 2015 general election.

But it was the 2016 EU referendum that raised his stature from that of a backbench ornament. Rees-Mogg campaigned vigorously for Leave, and has continued to fight for the hardest, purest form of Brexit ever since. In the wake of Theresa May’s insipid general election performance in 2017, he was seized on by young Conservatives desperate for a bold, colourful leader to take on Jeremy Corbyn – and so, the personality cult of “Moggmentum” was launched. (He joined Instagram and Twitter around the same time.) To persuade him to run for leader, two young activists, Anne Sutherland and Sam Frost, set up an online petition – “Ready for Rees-Mogg” – that now has more than 41,000 signatories, making it the biggest right-leaning campaign group in Britain. “We have a bunch of very, very boring people at the top of the Conservative Party, so someone who’s a bit different and not a classic cookie-cutter Tory minister is very exciting,” Frost told me.

Rees-Mogg’s rise continued. In September 2017 he emerged as the most popular potential leader in a monthly poll of more than 1,300 Tory members run by the website ConservativeHome, and has remained top in nearly every survey since. In October, he was the star of the party conference in Manchester, addressing packed fringe meetings while the main hall was half-empty. He has become something of a media celebrity, and gained a valuable new platform in January when he was elected chairman of the European Research Group, a cabal of 30 to 60 ultra-Brexiteer Tory MPs recently described by Peter Wilby in this magazine as “more of a party within a party than [Labour’s] Momentum”.

As the standard-bearer of the “swivel-eyed” brigade, he exerts relentless pressure to prevent May backsliding as she negotiates Britain’s departure from the EU. He speaks out when her red lines “are beginning to look a little bit pink”. He rejects any deal that would turn Britain into a “vassal state” or amount to “Brino” (an acronym for “Brexit in name only”). He objects to the negotiations becoming a “damage limitation exercise”, or to any suggestion that Brussels is dictating to Britain. He wants the UK out of the single market and customs union, even if that means crashing out of the EU without a deal. He is admired by Ukip supporters and is Nigel Farage’s preferred choice as the next Conservative leader.

Rees-Mogg the 'wannabee PM'. By Ralph Steadman for the New Stateman

In much the same way that Trump trashes the FBI to discredit its investigation of his Russian links, Rees-Mogg recently accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” to exaggerate the economic  damage of Brexit. “He’s theologically opposed to having policy driven by evidence and facts, insisting that anyone who disagrees must be lying or relying on false information,” one former Tory minister complained. But Rees-Mogg has uncompromising views that extend far beyond Brexit. He opposes the 1998 Human Rights Act, gay marriage and all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest – though he insists he would not seek to re-criminalise it. “I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whips’ Office,” he says.

He believes that “you alleviate poverty by trickle-down economics” or what some might call “sink-or-swim”. To that end, according to the website TheyWorkForYou, he has voted against a “mansion tax” on homes costing more than £2m, a bankers’ bonus tax, and tax increases for those earning more than £150,000. He has voted in favour of reductions in corporation and capital gains taxes, as well as greater regulation of trade unions.

Rees-Mogg has opposed increases in welfare benefits, even for the disabled – “the safety net [has] become a trap”, he contends. He supports zero-hours contracts, arguing that they benefit both employers and employees. He backed the controversial “bedroom tax” on council tenants deemed to be living in properties larger than they needed, and caused anger last autumn by appearing to welcome the fast-growing number of food banks. “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are,” he told LBC radio. Rees-Mogg is also a climate change sceptic who opposes costly measures to reduce greenhouse gases. “Even if the greens are right, Britain will make very little difference on her own,” he said. “I would rather my constituents were warm and prosperous than cold and impoverished as we are overtaken by emerging markets who understandably put people before polar bears.”

And so the list goes on. He opposes foreign aid because “this is not the job of the government but ought to be a matter of private charity”. He regards fox hunting as “the most humane way of controlling the fox population”. He supports the sale of state-owned forests, the mass surveillance of communications on security grounds, and restrictions on legal aid. He opposes any more devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.

He wants tougher immigration and asylum rules, and is no fan of positive discrimination. In 2006, he resisted Cameron’s efforts to increase the number of  Conservative parliamentary candidates from ethnic minorities. “Ninety-five per cent of this country is white,” he said. “The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”

“He had these sort of views when he was eight or nine. To still have them when he’s 48 seems to me to be pushing it a bit,” Chris Patten, the former Tory chairman, fellow Catholic and old friend of Rees-Mogg’s family, told me. “I don’t think they
have very much relevance to Britain’s problems in the 21st century, and the idea he could lead his party in this century is completely absurd.”

On the face of it, the idea is indeed absurd. Rees-Mogg has never held ministerial office (nor had Cameron when he became prime minister, but he had spent four years as leader of the opposition before forming a government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats). Except for his indisputable charm, Rees-Mogg comes across as a cartoon caricature of a Tory right-winger, and the ultimate toff in what is supposed to be a modern, egalitarian country. How he would play in Swansea, Sunderland or Stoke is anyone’s guess, for he seldom visits such places. Moreover, Rees-Mogg denies any interest in replacing May. If he threw his hat into the ring it would be thrown straight back at him, he protests. He has six young children, he adds.

***

And yet it might happen. “Yes it’s fanciful, but it’s not impossible,” says Paul Goodman, the former MP who edits ConservativeHome.

Few take Rees-Mogg’s protestations of disinterest seriously. As an 11-year-old he declared his intention to be “a millionaire by 20, a multi-millionaire by 40 and prime minister by 70”. He is now the bookies’ clear favourite as well as ConservativeHome’s frontrunner. He is speaking regularly at universities. “I’m absolutely sure he will stand,” a friend of his told me.

Rees-Mogg’s challenge will be to persuade the right of the parliamentary party to select him, rather than a cabinet-level Brexiteer, as one of the two candidates to be presented to the party membership.

He would be their riskiest choice, and Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, doubts he would prevail. “It’s one thing for a lot of members of the public, or the party, to think it’s great fun and admire him for never mincing his words and speaking 18th century English,” he told young activists in an unguarded moment at University College London in January. “It’s another to see that translating to being the prime minister and connecting with the whole of the country. So, no, I don’t see it happening.”

However, Rees-Mogg is a polished public performer and is untainted by last summer’s disastrous election. He has more charisma than Michael Gove, none of Boris Johnson’s personal baggage, and a substantial following among young Conservatives and those older, pro-Brexit party members who will have the final say. “In the end he’s a bit of a radical punt for his colleagues, but if he gets in the last two he will win,” said one supporter who follows the party’s internal machinations closely. Whether Rees-Mogg could win over the wider electorate is a moot point. He might prefer the fountain pen, but he is increasingly adept at social media. Supporters believe voters would warm to a politician who gives straight answers, who is funny and engaging, and whom they see as sincere and authentic even if they disagree with his views. They point to the equally improbable rise of Corbyn.

***

But the Jacobite rising faces fierce opposition. Late last week, Rees-Mogg was greeted by two separate sets of protesters when he arrived for a debate at the Cambridge Union – EU supporters and gay rights activists. “I never entertained the idea I’d see a politician like him so close to power. That’s absolutely terrifying for the future of this country,” Jessamyn Starr, one of the former, said. “He stands for bigotry and intolerance,” said Matt Kite, organiser of the LGBT “Kiss-in for Rees-Mogg”. “We won’t stand for people like him being wined and dined and applauded when his words have real consequences for people like us.”

Inside, Rees-Mogg was at ease in his dinner jacket. He spoke eloquently and humorously in support of the motion: “This house believes no deal is better than a bad deal.” He failed to address the consequences of “no deal”, but again dismissed the Treasury’s dire economic forecasts  – “if you believe those you’ll frankly believe anything” – and castigated the EU for proposing that  mobility scooters be insured. “Do we really want to make our elderly people zooming around on those marvellous mobility scooters pay an extra fee over which we have no say?” he asked.

But it was the passionate response of Rees-Mogg’s fellow Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, that stole the show. For her, the debate was no game. She tore into Rees-Mogg’s Brexiteer allies for labelling pro-Remain MPs “saboteurs”, and judges “enemies of the people”. She spelled out the catastrophic consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. “Who does want ‘no deal’?” she asked, before providing her own answer: “Those who wish this country ill and want to destabilise it. Those who want us to be a minimal tax, minimal regulation [country]. And those political ideologues who are so caught up in the majesty of Brexit that they have forgotten who loses out – including the little old lady on her mobility scooter – because our economy can’t look after the elderly properly.” The packed chamber burst into applause. Rees-Mogg looked a little shaken. The motion was lost. 

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled