Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

“I prefer to go into the abyss”: Catalonia stands on the brink of independence

Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan government, is expected to make a statement at 6pm on Tuesday. 

Tuesday 10 October may be the day on which Catalonia is declared an independent or state. Or, then again, it may not.

The clock is ticking as Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan government, is expected to appear at 6pm today before the regional Parliament in Barcelona to “report about the present political situation” in Catalonia.

This “political situation” is, to put it mildly, extremely complicated.

In the 1 October referendum, which was considered illegal by the Spanish state and repressed by its police, 90 per cent of those who did vote – the turnout was 43 per cent – answered “Yes” to whether they wanted Catalonia to become an independent republic, according to the figures published by the Catalan authorities.

After this vote, and according to the Referendum Law passed by the Catalan parliament last July, which then was also duly suspended by the Constitutional Court, Puigdemont should report to the regional MPs, who would then implement the referendum result.

As “Yes” won and the Generalitat, as the Catalan government is known, considers the referendum binding, despite all the logistical and technical problems it suffered, today's parliamentary session should lead to a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan PM.

And so this is the question everyone in Catalonia, most people in the whole of Spain, and quite a few in Europe are wondering: is Puigdemont going to proclaim the independent Republic of Catalonia? And would this be great for Catalonia and very bad for Spain? Vice versa? Something in between? Or simply just a terrible mess?

Catalexit

If somehow the Spanish state allowed Catalan independence to happen, and since the process hasn’t been negotiated with either Madrid or Brussels, Catalonia would probably be automatically outside the European Union and the eurozone. All EU members would have to approve an eventual re-admission of Catalonia into the union. This could be boycotted by Spain, which would then have to share some kind of hard or soft border with newly independent Catalonia.

Theoretically, and unless some extremely fast negotiations were successfully held, Catalonia would also be left out of all trade agreements the EU and Spain have with other parties. Likewise, the new Catalan Republic might find itself outside the United Nations and at the bottom of a long negotiating ladder to get back in.

And most worrisome to some: the Barcelona football team might not be allowed to go on playing in the Spanish La Liga. This would mean no more Clásicos until Catalonia were able to join UEFA, and FC Barcelona could then encounter Real Madrid in the Champions League or in other European competition.

But while those in the rest of Spain feeling quite anti-Catalan might smile at all this, Spain-minus-Catalonia would also be hugely affected by this so-called Catalexit.

As well as a chunk of land in its north-east corner, suddenly Spain would lose 19 per cent of its gross domestic product and 16 per cent of its population. Many, if not most, Spanish economic indices would worsen. Catalonia has a lower unemployment rate and higher GDP per capita, not to mention a higher PISA student score than the Spanish average, for example. 

Today, the Catalan region also receives a quarter of all foreign tourists flocking into Spain. It is the source of a quarter of all Spanish exports, and has received 31 per cent of foreign investment in Spain since 2011, according to official statistics.

And then, of course, Real Madrid fans would miss their Clásicos as much as FC Barcelona fans would.

Remember Companys

But football fans – as well as those supporting the unity of Spain – would have nothing to fear according to the Spanish government, which insists Catalonia will not become independent. Period.

If, after the almost universal condemnation of the police violence on referendum day a week ago, Catalan independence seemed almost unavoidable, today the tide seems to have changed.

“We are going to prevent the independence from happening,” asserted Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, in an interview with El País newspaper published last Sunday. “It’s obvious we will take any of the decisions allowed by the laws, depending on how the events keep unfolding.”

Days earlier, Rajoy had closed the door to any kind of negotiation. “The unity of Spain is not subject to to ay mediation or to any negotiation,” he asserted last Thursday after reports that the Catholic Church, several political parties, the Catalan civil society, and even former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan had tried to mediate.

If Puigdemont does declare independence, the Spanish government “will take some measures”, the deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, told a Spanish radio station – “a unilateral declaration of independence) will not be unanswered”.

Neither Rajoy nor his deputy detailed what these “decisions” or “measures” might be, or whether the ultimate legal weapon in the executive’s arsenal would be used. This is the now-famous Article 155 of the constitution, which allows the central government to take over any regional administration that threatens the general interest of Spain.

“Using the 155 might mean many different things because it hasn’t been studied much,” Santamaría admitted. This article has never been invoked in the Spanish democracy, and its vague wording doesn't help when thinking of what it could mean in practice. “On the other side, there’s a fanatic and it’s up to us to apply a double dose of good judgement,” she said, referring to Puigdemont.

“Let’s not repeat history because (the Catalan leaders) may end up like Companys!” chipped in Pablo Casado, vice-secretary of communications in the governing People’s Party (PP), speaking to the media.

Lluís Companys was the Catalan PM who, on 6 October 1934, declared the first independent republic of Catalonia. But the government of Spain, then also a republic, didn’t recognise it and the military was told to retake power in Barcelona.

Following this, Companys surrendered early in the morning of the next day, and was arrested along with other members of his government in the Palace of the Generalitat, the same building where today Puigdemont sits. They were later tried and jailed.

After the leftist People’s Front’s victory in the general election in February 1936, Companys returned to government, but was forced into exile by the Spanish Civil War in 1939. One year later, Company was arrested by the German Gestapo in France, sent back to Spain and executed.

Casado, whose words were sharply criticised by all political sides but his own, also reminded his audience that the present Spanish penal code establishes prison terms of “15 years for sedition and of 25 years for rebellion”.

“Money is money”

In spite of these threats, according to some members of the Catalan government, the only option left is for it to declare independence today.

“Is there any alternative at all? The (Catalan) parliament has the sovereignty, it’s important to acknowledge this, and there’s a parliamentary majority [for independence],” said Raül Romeva, the Catalan head of foreign affairs, when asked by the public Belgian broadcaster about a possible declaration of independence. It was up to the Catalan MPs to “follow up on what the people voted”, he added.

In the Catalan parliament, the Together For Yes governing coalition (this “yes” is to independence) and its ally, the anti-capitalist and fiery pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), hold 72 of the 135 seats.

Today's announcement by Puigdemont “may not be something ambiguous”, said Carles Riera, one of the CUP deputies in the regional parliament. “As of right now, there is no doubt” that Catalonia will be declared independent, he added.

But it seems there are doubts. 

Last Sunday, TV3, the public Catalan broadcaster, sent out a press release announcing a TV interview with Puigdemont in the evening, in which the Catalan PM would say “the declaration of independence, which we don’t call a ‘unilateral’ declaration of independence, is provided by the Referendum Law as the implementation of the results. And we’ll do as the law says”.

But when TV3 did broadcast the interview later on, Puigdemont wasn’t shown saying those words.

Also last Sunday, Artur Mas, Puigdemont’s predecessor as head of the Generalitat, told the Spanish press “the debate is about how to apply in an effective way a declaration that leads to an independent state”. Mas was suspended from public office after presiding over the organisation of an informal consultation on Catalan independence back in November 2014, in which 80 per cent of voters supported the move with a turnout of 33 per cent.

We are now in a situation where one “should use a political judgement, political intelligence”, Mas added, fuelling the fears of those in the pro-separation movement who want an unambiguous declaration of independence.

Mas’s and Puigdemont’s party has a pro-business stance, and the former Catalan PM’s words followed a series of days in which more than 25 companies based in Catalonia have changed the addresses of their registered headquarters to outside the region. These include CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell, two of the biggest Spanish banks, Gas Natural Fenosa, one of the Spanish energy giants, and Aguas de Barcelona, which despite its name is now officially based in Madrid. Other companies have said they are also considering moving outside of Catalonia, while yet others have said they will do so if independence comes.

As a Catalan saying goes, la pela és la pela, meaning “money is money” and other things come after. These companies fear the legal uncertainty and the potential economic restrictions that could follow a declaration of independence.

As of right now, in practical terms, and so long as these companies don’t start closing their offices in Catalonia or firing their staff, the impact is minimal, beyond the negative image of the region this may give to investors. In Spain most taxes are centralised by Madrid, so these companies moving their registered headquarters will just result in the loss of some local taxes for Barcelona and the other Catalan cities where they were based.

Beyond the Spanish (and Catalan) borders, the European Commission has maintained its support for the Spanish government, even if it has also criticised the police response to the vote. “If there were to be a declaration of independence, it would be unilateral, and it would not be recognised,” said Nathalie Loiseau, France's minister for European affairs, in case things were not clear.

Second-class citizens united

But as if all this wasn’t enough, then there was last Sunday's demonstration in Barcelona.

This was the biggest show of force in Catalonia by pro-unity political parties and civil society alike that anyone can remember. Organisers said almost a million people had taken to the streets to protest against independence, while the local police put this figure down to about 350,000. It was huge, in any case, and there had never been as many Spanish flags in the streets of Barcelona as on Sunday. Many people had come from other Spanish regions. Most, though, were Catalans who said that up till then, they had never been able to publicly oppose independence.

“Long live Spain!” they chanted. And, “Puigdemont to jail!” And, “We are not fachas, we are Spaniards!”, fachas being a term equivalent to “fascists” and which some still apply to those ostensibly attached to Spanish values and symbols (although some others on the march made fascist salutes). The demonstrators' slogan was: “Enough! Let's get good judgement back.”

“We are Spain, we don’t want an independent Catalonia. I am Catalan because I was born here, but I feel Spanish”, said May Cumplido, 47, a sales representative, who was holding the Catalan and the Spanish flags together in a way that each side showed one of them. “We were repressed, we shut up to avoid conflicts with our neighbours,” she added. “We feel like second class citizens,” said her companion, Joaquín García, 49 and also a sales representative.

They had come with some friends from Sant Andreu de la Barca, a town in Barcelona province where the biggest quarters of the Guardia Civil in Catalonia are based. They told stories of friends and families being divided over this issue in the last weeks, of people leaving WhatsApp groups and deleting friends from Facebook, and of the conflict dividing even schoolchildren.

“Maybe those who are pro-independence don’t know the richness and beauty of Spain,” said Cumplido. “What I always say is: not to violence and not to independence,” said García.

At the end of the march, Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian-born writer and Nobel Prize in Literature winner who also holds the Spanish nationality, and Josep Borrell, a Catalan socialist politician who was the president of the European Parliament, made the official speeches calling for an end to this process and for the constitution and the unity of Spain to be respected.

The demonstration, the big numbers of which took everyone by surprise, was almost peaceful except for a few isolated incidents, and seems to have changed something in the atmosphere. More official Catalan flags – those not starred unlike the pro-independence one – and even Spanish ones could be seen hanging from windows and balconies in Barcelona.

Historical days

“We usually abuse the adjective 'historic', but I think 1 October did mark a historic day, if by this we mean that things will never be the way they were the day before,” said Agustí Alcoberro, professor of history at Barcelona University and a former director of the Museum of Catalan History.

Alcoberro says that ever since 1714, when King Philip V abolished the Catalan institutions and banned the language after the War of the Spanish Succession, Castilian Spain has imposed its will by force onto Catalonia. That coercion, he argues, has lasted until today in spite of the present democratic regime and the high level of Catalan self-government.

“I don't know how this will end, but I do know that the model of the Spanish state divided in several autonomous regions, which came to be with the 1978 Constitution is going to disappear,” he added, now echoing what many do think, including among those opposed to Catalan independence.

Facing the abyss

While both sides have their political daggers drawn, currently it would seem that the Spanish government has the upper hand as we await this evening's showdown.

The Catalan National Assembly, one of the main civil organisations behind the pro-independence campaign and referendum, called yesterday on citizens to gather in front of the Catalan parliament by 6pm. “The people have spoken and said YES to independence. Now, let’s declare it,” said the Assembly on its Twitter account.

“I think everyone is willing to take to the streets, the police will charge, I don't know what we'll do, but will (the Spanish authorities) call the army and shoot at us?”, wondered Víctor Rubinat, 40, and who is one of the 15 per cent who have always been pro-independence, according to polls before the present political process began in earnest in 2010.

“You look at the process and we are in the middle. You look back and you see the Spanish state chasing you with batons and laws they impose on us even if we disagree. You look ahead and you see an abyss. You look back again and you say, 'I prefer to go into the abyss'”, said Rubinat, who is an online developer.

As minutes and hours go by, everyone is looking toward the Catalan parliament, in the Park of the Ciutadella in Barcelona city centre. The surrounding area was yesterday already cordoned off by the local police.

Whatever happens inside and outside the building today, it is indeed difficult to see how things could go back to how they were before these past few weeks.

IMAGE: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

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.