Meet Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Next Tory Kingmaker

“Thank you for coming,” says Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative backbencher whose soft hands now hold the fate of Theresa May, the outcome of Brexit, and the future of the Conservative party. We sit down at a table in his office in the Palace of Westminster. There are Georgian cartoons on the wall, a teakettle and cups at hand, and political knickknacks and stacks of books on the mantelpiece. Through the open Gothic Revival window, I can hear the distant wail of police sirens and a busker’s bagpipes.

“Absolutely astonished you should want to speak to me,” he says in a rarefied English accent from another age. “I can’t think American readers would be in the least interested.”

He knows perfectly well why I want to interview him, and why Americans might soon be very interested in him. In January, Rees-Mogg was elected to the chairmanship of the European Research Group (ERG), a single-issue forum for the Conservative party’s Euroskeptics in Parliament. In February, the ERG sent Prime Minister Theresa May a letter signed by 62 backbenchers, exhorting her to stick to the clean Brexit she promised in January 2017 in a speech at Lancaster House in London. It was becoming clear that May wants a much softer Brexit—or even some sort of Remain by other means.

Sixty-two is much higher than the magic number of 48. The Conservative party runs its parliamentary business through the 1922 Committee, which was, of course, founded in 1923. Under party rules, if 48 MPs send a letter of “no confidence” to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, he must call a leadership contest—even when the party leader is prime minister. The rebels have to time their attack carefully; they can only call one vote in any 12 months.

Rees-Mogg has never held cabinet office. He has existed on the right margins of parliamentary Conservatism since his election to the House of Commons in 2010. But his chairmanship of the ERG; his unremitting opposition to the E.U. and its machinations; his utter commitment to a total Brexit; and his remarkable popularity with the party rank and file add up to a veto over the May government’s Brexit negotiations and, should Britain and the E.U. reach a deal in October, over parliamentary approval of it.

“We’re likely to have a vote in about 20 minutes to half an hour, so I’ll trot down and trot back again,” he explains with the most considerate of drawls. “Just to warn you.”

Rees-Mogg is famous for his good manners. Like his pinstriped double-breasted blue suits and his mannered accent, his courtesy is from another age. So is his way of life, whose dogged Victorian lavishness irritates some among the British public for the same reasons that it endears him to others: the six children with forenames like Anselm Charles Fitzwilliam, Alfred Wulfric Leyson Pius, and Sixtus Dominic Boniface; the hereditarily wealthy wife; the country pile, where the nursery is run by Rees-Mogg’s own childhood nanny.

There is much of P.G. Wodehouse in Rees-Mogg. When he canvassed door to door in his first, unsuccessful attempt to win a seat in parliament, nanny came too. When the papers reported that he was driving around in a Bentley, he objected that it was only a Mercedes. A contemporary of Rees-Mogg’s at Eton recalls how the pupils wagged him by humming the national anthem during class, so that young Jacob would jump out of his seat and stand to attention.

But there is more of the serious comedy of Evelyn Waugh. Rees-Mogg’s anachronistic, almost theatrical overdressing; his posh, staunch, and fecund Catholicism, and his conviction that the old days and old ways were better all recall later Waugh. His constituency, North East Somerset, is in Waugh country.

Yet the man they call the Right Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century is nobody’s fool. He knows that Europe is the Achilles heel of the Conservatives and of British politics in general. He knows that many among the Tory party membership want him as their next leader, that he has one of the highest recognition factors of any politician in the country, that his feelings about Brexit are closer to those of ordinary Britons than to those of the political and media elites, and that the party leaders fear him for these reasons. He is, of course, too polite to tell me any of this.

Theresa May’s government is being stretched on a rack of its own devising, and Rees-Mogg and the Brexiteers are tightening the screws. In her Lancaster House speech, May committed Britain to “a new and equal partnership . . . not partial membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.” Britain, she promised, would not “seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.” But in early May, the prime minister signaled that she wanted Britain to remain in a customs union with the E.U. after Brexit. By June, the Brexiteers had forced her to back down.

“It’s a bit odd, really,” Rees-Mogg says with strenuous understatement. “The government is nearly two years into the Brexit process, and it still hasn’t worked out what it wants to negotiate with the European Union. It’s still negotiating its customs plan internally, and I’m not sure this is very helpful. It would have been better if they’d had an idea much earlier on.”

Rees-Mogg, 49, is the son of a former editor of the London Times, William Rees-Mogg. Legend has it that his father made young Jacob study a page of the encyclopedia per day and discuss its contents at dinner. I have met him once before, as an undergraduate, late at night by a kebab stand in Oxford. He was wearing a suit and tie then, too. After Oxford, Rees-Mogg made millions as a founder of the investment firm Somerset Capital.

“I think with a negotiation you have to go in knowing what you want, knowing what your bottom line is, and knowing what you might accept if you’re absolutely pushed,” he says. “It’s been 15 months since the triggering of Article 50 [which notified the E.U. of Britain’s intent to leave], and two years since we voted to leave. Still not having established one of the key elements of the end state in your own mind seems to me an unusual position to be in.”

For “odd” and “unusual,” read “absurd” and “disgraceful.” In her first year in office, Theresa May turned a parliamentary majority into a minority government through a mistimed and shoddily fought general election. After that, she retained power by setting Remainers and Brexiteers against each other in her cabinet. All the while, she made concession after concession in negotiations with the E.U., including a promise to pay £40 billion to the E.U.’s Multiannual Financial Framework during the exit period. In return, May has received . . . nothing.

“Do I know where they’re going to end up?” Rees-Mogg asks, getting as close to anger as such a polite man can. “No. They don’t know where they’re going to end up.”

Brexit was never going to be easy. But it didn’t have to be this hard. May’s government has failed to order civil servants to prepare for the entirely plausible scenario in which the U.K. and the E.U. fail to reach a deal, and the U.K. crashes out of the E.U. in March 2019. This may have been a deliberate omission. For if there are no plans for “No Deal,” then any deal remains the only alternative—even a Remain-by-stealth deal. Some Euroskeptics suspect that May, who endorsed Remain in the 2016 referendum, has wanted that all along.

Admittedly, the Remainers had always warned that Britain was so ensnared in the E.U.’s octopus-like tentacles that escape was impossible. But May has compounded complexity with ineptitude. Her self-serving lack of clarity has held together her divided cabinet and party, but at the expense of the nation and its trust in democracy. In June, her team failed to present proposals as previously agreed when they met with the E.U.’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team in Brussels.

Last week, May finally showed her hand. The result was chaos, and the complete collapse of Britain’s negotiating position. On Friday, July 6, she summoned her cabinet to Chequers, the prime minister’s weekend retreat. After 12 hours of discussions, the cabinet emitted a “collective statement of intent” for the final stage of Brexit negotiations, which begins in October.

The negotiating positions announced include complete harmonization with present and future E.U. rules on the import and export of goods. The European Court of Justice would have a permanent role in arbitration in British courts. The U.K. and the E.U. would be a “combined customs’ territory,” in which the U.K. would apply E.U. tariffs and taxes to goods entering or exiting the E.U.

The Chequers statement reversed everything that May had promised in her Lancaster House speech. And it was just the opening gambit for the October negotiations. What will be left of Brexit once Barnier and the E.U. negotiators do what they have done at every meeting and demand concessions without giving anything in return? In that light, the Chequers statement was less a wish list than a prelude to total surrender and the undoing of the popular vote.

Some of the Brexiteers in the cabinet are reported to have objected. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary whose charisma was crucial to the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, reached into his grab bag of quotations and opined that any Conservative who tried to sell May’s faux-Brexit would be “polishing a turd.” But Johnson, noting that May and the “turd-polishers” had the numbers, signed the Chequers statement. So did the minister for Brexit, David Davis.

Then they headed for the exits. It was Davis who resigned first, early on Monday morning, July 9. Johnson, having sulked in his tent over the weekend like Achilles, resigned at lunchtime. By the end of the day, it was rumored that Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, had received the necessary 48 letters. But May was determined to tough it out.

“My God,” a ministerial aide told me. “Who knows what’s going to happen? It all depends on whether anyone else resigns this afternoon, and whether anyone hands in a letter this evening. My gut feeling is, she’ll try to hang on. No one wants a general election. That’s the biggest fear here. So if no one else goes soon she should make it through.”

There were no major resignations on Monday night, though Rees-Mogg was on the BBC threatening May with a revolt of “50 to 100” MPs. But on Tuesday, two party vice-chairmen resigned—the first, it was rumored, of a slow drip of resignations coordinated by the ERG. Donald Trump, who arrived two days later, said that Britain was “in turmoil” and that it was “up to the people” of Britain to decide May’s fate. But the Conservative MPs are more afraid of the people’s wrath than of a bad deal with Brussels; they want to avoid a general election. Still, whether May stays or goes, Britain currently has no workable Brexit policy. That makes a “No Deal” Brexit much more likely. And all this vindicates Rees-Mogg. As the clock runs out on negotiations, his maximal Brexit becomes a fait accompli, and he its standard bearer.

Rees-Mogg kept his powder dry after the Davis and Johnson resignations. The Conservative Brexiteers have the numbers to pull down a Remainer prime minister if they time their attack correctly. But they don’t have the numbers to install a Brexiteer as prime minister—at least, not yet.

If May can make it to the summer recess at the end of July, she will survive until September and probably until the opening of final Brexit negotiations in October. Her enemies will spend August plotting. They expect that Barnier, true to form, will ask for more concessions, and that May, true to form, will grant them. After that, the thinking goes, the Brexiteers will have a chance of winning a no-confidence vote, and the wider party might have reconciled itself to the need for a new leader. Rees-Mogg will be crucial to deciding when that moment comes, and the ERG’s votes will be key to its outcome. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in this scenario, will be first executioner, then kingmaker.

A rippling, Pink Floyd-ish guitar chord sounds through a speaker in Rees-Mogg’s office and down the corridors of the Palace of Westminster. I had half-expected that MPs would be called to vote by a handbell, rung by a man in breeches and perhaps a wig. The guitar chord evokes bad memories of Tony Blair, the guitar-strumming charmer who, like John Major before him and Gordon Brown and David Cameron after, allowed Britain to slide further into the maw of the E.U. because it was good for business.

The Brexit referendum of 2016 asserted the will of the people over their rulers, and the value of sovereignty over business. Despite the vote, the Remainers still make the argument for business over the democratic will of the people. But Rees-Mogg believes that Britain can get free from the legislative grip of the E.U. without damaging the British economy.

“We have £40 billion’s worth of leverage,” he notes. Money “which the European Union needs because it has very limited ability to borrow. How does [the E.U.] fund its committed projects in Romania and everywhere else if it doesn’t have British money to spend? It could ask the Germans for more, but that’s not going to be very popular. Or it could tell the other countries that they’re getting less money, but that wouldn’t be very popular. So we have a pretty strong position.”

“We also have a £180 billion trade deficit with the European Union. So there are lots of regions within the E.U., or indeed individual countries, that are highly dependent on their trade with the U.K. Both sides have strengths in this negotiation. It seems to me a deal where we say, ‘You want our money, and we want a trade deal.’ A pretty good deal could be done.”

The problem to Rees-Mogg is not the hostility of Brussels; that is to be expected. The problem is the flawed British strategy, and the lack of confidence in its execution. “I think we have allowed the E.U. to set the terms of the negotiation much too much. This is not wisdom after the event; I’m saying it while it’s going on at the same time. It was a huge mistake to allow the E.U. to set the timetable before we’d settled the trade. What are we buying for this money? At the moment: nothing. The money hardly gets talked about now. So we’re giving them £40 billion for nothing.”

The vaunted politeness makes the criticism all the more devastating. The truth hurts, but in an age of spin and fakery, it also pays dividends. Rees-Mogg is unaffected about his affectedness, and often more candid than a politician can afford to be. He is a social conservative and a Christian in a country without social conservative or Christian voting blocs, even among the Conservatives. The public likes his honesty, his willingness to be awkward, and his independence.

“I can’t see the point in being in politics if you’re not yourself,” he says. “If you’re simply interested in implementing other people’s policies then you should become a civil servant. If you have ideas and some form of ideology, then it’s exciting, because you can argue forward. If you’ve sorted it through, you probably have a pretty clear idea of how you could improve the condition of the people of the nation.”

We are talking about Edmund Burke, the British Bill of Rights (1689), and the American Constitution, when the guitar chord rings again, followed by an urgently tinkling bell. “Ah, that’s the vote,” he says, before resuming a reading from the Bill of Rights, which permitted only Protestants to bear arms.

“As a papist, I’d be a little bit worried,” he jokes. “Now, I must go and vote, but I’ll be back.”

Rees-Mogg leaves me alone in his office. This is a breach of the House of Commons’s security protocols, and of common sense too. Does he do this because he is a thinking person, a person of conscience, and trusts that others are too?

The Conservative membership, who decide the party’s leadership contests, is considerably grayer, whiter, and righter than its MPs. Recent polls have Rees-Mogg as the members’ choice for leader. By the spring, after he had started appearing every Monday on an LBC radio phone-in show (“Ring Rees-Mogg”), he was the bookmakers’ favorite too. The papers started talking about “Moggmania” and “Moggmentum.”

LBC used to be a local station, the London Broadcasting Company. Its combination of angry callers and excellent traffic reports long made it the London cabbie’s station of choice. Now digitized, LBC broadcasts all over Britain, and advertises its acronym as “Leading Britain’s Conversation.” Appearing on LBC, Rees-Mogg is talking across the divide between Remainer London and the Brexit-supporting masses outside the capital. He is also talking over the heads of his party’s leadership.

“We reflected the mood of the country when it came to Brexit,” says Nick Ferrari, who hosts the morning show on LBC. The day before the 2016 referendum, he was appearing on a politics program with Boris Johnson’s journalist sister, Rachel.

“Your brother’s won this,” he told her. “Britain’s going to vote to leave.”

“Well I’ve just spoken to him,” she replied, “and he thinks they’re just going to come up short. They haven’t quite got enough.”

“You’re in London too much,” Ferrari replied.

“And that’s the divide,” he tells me. “That’s the reality. If you’re in the London bubble, chances are you’re going to be a Remainer. Once you’re outside, you’re across the divide.”

We’re sitting in the LBC studios in Leicester Square. Ferrari has just come off air after interviewing Rees-Mogg. On this morning’s show, a woman from Medway in Kent—a working-class outcrop of Brexit voters, but inside the London commuter belt—rang and asked, “Why can’t we have a prime minister that shows your passion?”

“There’s a fair amount in Brexit of what powered Trump to the presidency, the feeling that the world has passed us by,” Ferrari says. “I’ve asked Jacob whether he wants to be leader of the party. And of course he said, as every leader of the party once said, ‘I don’t have any ambition to be there.’ Boris Johnson says the same, and he still wants to be leader.”

“What appeals about Rees-Mogg to my listeners is what appeals most of the time about Boris Johnson, which is that they will answer a question honestly. And Jacob can currently do that, because he’s not a cabinet minister. He’s seen as being quite rebellious, but not necessarily an archrebel. He leads the ERG. So if he doesn’t agree with a policy, he’s in a glorious position that appeals to people.”
Rees-Mogg’s anachronistic persona accords with that independence. “I think it’s also the way he dresses, the way he speaks,” Ferrari says. “It’s as if they’ve undone everything you learn in media training. And sometimes it works. You could say the same about Trump.”

I mention meeting Rees-Mogg at a kebab stand as an undergraduate.

“He wasn’t wearing a suit, was he?” Ferrari asks.

“Yes, he was.”

“But he wasn’t buying a kebab, was he?”

“Yes, he was. He’s always had a populist streak.”

Ferrari observes that Rees-Mogg has just returned from South Shields, a pro-Brexit postindustrial town in the northeast of England. “I know he’s the son of an editor of the Times who became a lord. I know he’s Eton and Oxford and all that. But I can tell you, he resonates better with our listeners in the North than their own politicians do.”

Rees-Mogg is expert at playing the modern media game. Most politicians cultivate a persona and then come across as mediocre actors. But Rees-Mogg’s persona is his character. That makes him unflappable, for his principles run deeper than the personae of his rivals and interviewers.

“I trust my electors,” he says. “I see them in weekly meetings. I’m their advocate, I’m there to take up their case. I’m not there to decide whether they’ve got a good case or a bad case. And I think that if you trust people, they’re more likely to trust you back. Also, I don’t shy away from disagreeing with people. Of course, people like it when you share their views. But they’d rather know that they didn’t share your views than have you wobbling about just for the sake of it. Trust in politics is important.”

I ask him why he had left me alone in his office. “Until you mentioned it, it didn’t occur to me.”

For a man who dresses like Neville Chamberlain, Rees-Mogg is playing a modern game. He’s broadcasting to the Brexit-voting provinces, but he’s built a power base deep in Westminster. He’s a rogue element in the parliamentary party, but he’s also the party membership’s choice.

Asked how he feels about being the people’s choice, he laughs, mumbles his disavowals quietly and then emits a diversionary burst of Victoriana: “It’s all quite jolly, but it’s not serious. If people put money on the bookmakers, they’ll lose their money as they usually do. You know what politics is like. I’m very aware that in a month, people might look at each other and say, ‘Isn’t he the chap who used to be Jacob Rees-Mogg?’ LBC will cancel me and it’ll all be over.”

He insists he is “just a backbencher, one of many.” But when it comes to Brexit, Rees-Mogg now represents just over half of the country, and at a time when Theresa May’s government seems set on trying to overrule them. He may be a backbencher, but he is singularly influential. On July 11, it was rumored that the ERG has given Theresa May an ultimatum: If she does not return to her Lancaster House positions within a week, the ERG will release the last letters to the 1922 Committee. In the coming weeks, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s principles will meet the complexities of power politics.

The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson are the death knell of Theresa May’s government. Rees-Mogg’s position as chair of the ERG, his standing among the party membership, and his remarkable cross-party public appeal make him the most powerful man in British politics today. No Tory can pull down Theresa May without Rees-Mogg’s support. If the Brexiteers lack the votes to force one of their own into 10 Downing Street, neither can an alternative leader prosper without their endorsement.

Over the last three decades, three Conservative prime ministers—Thatcher, Major, and Cameron—have fallen over the question of Europe. May will be the fourth. The party cannot reunite without reconciliation between its Europhile majority and its sizable Euroskeptic minority. Rees-Mogg will be the key to that process, and he is relishing it.

He apologizes; there is only time for one more question.

“As a Catholic living in Somerset,” I ask, “What’s your favorite Evelyn Waugh novel?”

I’m expecting him to nominate Brideshead Revisited or the Sword of Honour trilogy, Waugh’s late-period elegies for a lost world, or even the religious-historical Helena. Rees-Mogg mulls it over for a moment and then laughs. “Scoop,” he announces. “It’s got to be. For a moment I thought that was a difficult question. Scoop. It’s such fun.”

His reply surprises me at first. But then I remember that he is a journalist’s son, playing a complex media-political game in a country that is coming apart at the seams.

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