So, Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke at our university. Tickets sold out within hours, which is unusual even given the quality events that the Mile End Institute puts on. The queue, I’m told, stretched to library square. I did not go. I don’t find Rees-Mogg to be particularly interesting in terms of what he has to say. Most of his social views I find deplorable. But I write a political column, and I felt this needed covering, so I poured a drink and launched myself into the livestream.
Beyond the heat of the protests, which I might cover once I know how I feel about them, what did he actually say? Well, to begin, thankfully, no one called him ‘The Mogg’ that I’m aware of, as political nicknames have a tendency to make me baulk at their mere mention. (See also: Boris, Jeremy)
He opened by explaining his peculiar appeal – he, according to himself, gives answers that are honest, and not mediated by spin doctors, and simply ‘is who he is’ – the contrast, we are to presume, is that most politicians are in fact mediated by spin doctors, and thus insincere. The sincerity of Rees-Mogg does seem to be a crucial part of his appeal, and it’s only too easy to see the comparisons between Rees-Mogg and Corbyn when the issue of sincerity is framed in this way. Both are men from the fringes of their party, both are men with ideologies that tend to be considered too hard-line for their parties’ mainstream. I think there’s a world of difference between the two, for what it’s worth, and I don’t think it’s actually a particularly useful comparative given the electorates that they each have to win over, but it’s not difficult to see how commentators on the right have been swept up.
He spoke quite saliently on the issue of women in parliament, but in an omission that I found quite interesting, on the topic of Women2Win, he referred to the project as being ran by ‘Baroness Jenkin’ – not her co-founder, a certain Theresa May. I’m not saying that it was a deliberate tactic by Rees-Mogg, given his insistence on reaffirming his support for the PM, but it’s interesting to note that he doesn’t tend to give reasons for supporting Theresa May beyond party loyalty – perhaps this is the case, but given that a general dislike of the May Project (or indeed the lack thereof) seems to be a fairly popular take in the Tory party at the moment, it’s certainly convenient.
On meeting with Bannon, Rees-Mogg referred the Trump phenomenon as ‘very interesting’ and spoke about how Trump is very good on social media, and able to ‘avoid the traditional media’. He furthermore talks about Trump being able to ‘deliver on high-profile commitments.’ This became more relevant in light of a somewhat worrying segue, where he referred to the ‘EU-funded CBI’, referred to it being discussed in Davos, and accused the organisation of ‘some orchestration.’ Rees-Mogg, in other words, makes the fairly wild and dangerous claim that the Civil Service is deliberately undermining Brexit, which has more than a whiff of Trumpian ‘deep-state’ claims to it. Couple that with terms like ‘EU-funded’ and ‘Davos’ and the whiff of Trump becomes the stench of tin foil.
There’s a theme here. Rees-Mogg spent an awful lot of his speech pointing out the specific problems of the Conservatives, but I think the interesting element of his talk is that for all his diagnoses, it is not difficult to produce a reading wherein the necessary medicine is Rees-Mogg himself. His two points of issue – social media and popular promises – both play into his strong suits. He is popular on social media, with a fairly dedicated army of memesters behind him, and performs well on ConservativeHome, which is more or less the online home of the Conservative membership. If the Tories were to adopt a social-media heavy strategy, it is not hard to see Rees-Mogg being a significant element of it. In the same way that Labour’s PMQ strategy now consists of ‘what can we do that will perform well on social media’, Rees-Mogg does have a certain ability to deliver the sort of one liners that will go down well with young Tory activists. His response to Professor Cowley’s questions about what shops he has gone to – he likes McDonald’s and Greggs, and then told a room full of students that he’s a big fan of Wetherspoons – was good, and if he was attempting to show that he is one Tory who might be able to get The Youths™ onside then it did something, I suppose.
Likewise with campaign promises. If the issue the Conservatives are having is that they’re not delivering on ‘significant popular election promises’, it’s fairly hard to come to a reading of that problem that doesn’t identify the promise as ‘leaving the European Union.’ In that regard, his position on the Select Committee for Exiting the EU, and his fairly hard-line Brexiteer stance will put him in a good position to brand himself as the sort of person who will be able to deliver on the promise to leave the EU.
His standard answer on the leadership worked quite well. He never quite refuses to rule himself out. He never says that he definitively would not stand, or that he does not want the role – and as Professor Cowley pointed out – he could quite easily have said that he ‘would not serve’ even if offered the position. Rees-Mogg’s deflection is standard, as he points out that he is not a minister, and thus there is no real historical precedent for a Conservative leader who has not served in at least a Ministerial (or indeed Shadow Ministerial) role. That’s not to say he wouldn’t want the leadership if he was. Nor, actually, does it suggest that he doesn’t want the leadership even though he isn’t. His objections are that he doesn’t think he’d win. He offers little about what he’d do if he thought he did.
Practically, the stance that Rees-Mogg took on the Civil Service is absolutely toxic, and unlikely to deliver anything in terms of good governance. A Civil Service that feels under attack by the Government is not, on the whole, a good thing. Politically, however, it was quite a good performance. He sidestepped social policy issues about as well as he could have hoped to do so, and managed to present himself as a viable solution to many problems the Conservatives are facing. Regardless of your opinions on him, there’s little denying it was a solid performance.