The Strange Rise of Jacob Rees-Mogg

September 9th, 2017

David Herdson on the man who opposes abortion & gay marriage

Of all the odd stories to have infected the Silly Season, none has been odder than the promotion of Jacob Rees-Mogg to be the next Leader of the Conservatives and, quite possibly along with it, Prime Minister. The oddness is not so much the story itself but the crossover into the betting markets. He is widely quoted at about 8/1 for the premiership, with only Paddy Power out on a limb at 18/1. Several firms have him as third favourite behind only Jeremy Corbyn and David Davis.

This is, we should remember, for a man who has never held ministerial office, whose views on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage put him well out of the mainstream of the Conservative Party, never mind the country, who has never shown any interest in running for the leadership, who has no obvious factional support in the Commons and whose whole demeanour could have been designed to look fifty years out of date – or, in naming his most recent child Sixtus, five hundred years.

    Why are so many people willing to put good money against his name? Part of the answer is probably a misguided attempt to find a Tory equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders: someone from the fringes of the movement who could yet serve as the conduit for a rebellion against the establishment. I am surely not alone in finding JRM an improbable anti-establishment rebel.

Those grassroots movements happened because the candidates associated with them energised their base with a vision – something only possible if there is in fact a vision to be bought in to and a large number of people willing to do so. Neither is the case with Mogg (though there is an important point touched on here, which we’ll come back to).

What he does have are values, which is not the same as a vision but is not unrelated and that confusion may be at the heart of the odd momentum behind his rise up the list of potential successors to May. I very much doubt that those values would be an asset in a leadership election. Yes, his Euroscepticism would be an asset but he’s unlikely to be the only candidate who could claim purity on that question.

All the same, there is a reason why people are looking to the likes of Mogg that goes beyond just the general trend of outsiders, mavericks and values politics. In fact, there are two related ones. The first is the complete absence of any kind of program or ideology coming from May herself. When she was elected, she gave an excellent One Nation speech which seemed to set for herself and her government a framework of objectives and intentions but very little if anything has flowed from it. The manifesto, which should have been about the practical application of the solutions to the problems identified in that speech, was a hotch-potch of unrelated unpopular ideas. There was no central theme to it (and if there had been, no-one was following it anyway).

As then, so now. Her government trundles on but without any burning sense of mission. Even Brexit, which will dominate politics for years, is for her nothing more than the pragmatic application of a policy she campaigned against. Her answer to this was that it was a virtue to be unideological and to be simply delivering good, competent, strong and stable government: a line which worked until May and hasn’t worked since.

The second reason is that if people are looking for potential successors to May, then the cabinet is itself struggling for obvious candidates. Too many are too compromised by one thing or another, while others are simply too junior or too grey. In the absence of clear candidates in the obvious place, it’s unsurprising that people turn to less obvious places, particularly when that has proven a route to power elsewhere.

The comparisons, however, are wrong. Apart from the differences already mentioned, the parties also differ. The Conservatives have caught ideology in the past and there’s no guarantee that they won’t do so again, particularly at a time when such big issues are at stake. But they’ve never chosen such an outsider and the party’s election process is designed against it.

It follows that the odds offered for Rees-Mogg are ludicrously short. There may be merit in the conclusion that the winner will come from outside the usual suspects at the very top of the party but if we’re looking to current outsiders, someone like Dominic Raab – a member of the government and a good possibility for promotion to the cabinet, priced at 66/1 with SkyBet – would be a better bet.

David Herdson