Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Conservative Clinic

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Trumpian popularity, Chestertonian wit

Gray_07-2018

If you wanted to imagine a British Donald J. Trump, Jacob William Rees-Mogg would not spring to mind.  Mogg is younger than Trump (49 to Trump’s 71), thinner, and pale instead of orange.  If they were cheeses, Mogg would be Stilton, and Trump would be Jack.  Mogg has excellent manners—not something the 45th American President is often accused of possessing.  Mogg dresses like a 1930’s English gentleman: three-piece suits or tweeds, winged collars, and he often carries an umbrella.  Trump’s suits have that baggier American cut.  Not that there is anything wrong with that.

As a political phenomenon, however, “the Moggster,” as he is known, is quite Trumpian.  He is wildly popular in a way that the experts cannot understand.  As Trump was in 2015, he is dismissed as a ridiculous figure who can’t win.  Yet he keeps winning in the polls.  A “Next Tory Leader” survey, run by the ConservativeHome website, has for three months seen him coming in first.  The Conservative Party establishment is as stumped by Mogg’s success among the Tory base as the Republicans were by Trump’s.  And that only makes the base like him more.

The on-dit among Westminster Tories is that Mogg couldn’t possibly climb to the top of the greasy pole because of the way Conservative leadership contests operate.  Nobody now denies that Mogg would, were he to run, trounce any rival in a vote among the party membership.  But it seems unlikely that, given his rebel status, he could ever get past the first round, which is when Tory Members of Parliament pick the two candidates to go to the party for a final vote.

That said, the bookmakers have Mogg as joint favorite to be the next Prime Minister (at 4/1 odds, the same as the Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn), and the gambling community has in recent years been far better at predicting British politics than the London cognoscenti.

There is a cult of Mogg.  Every successful populist, it seems, must appeal to a nostalgia among voters for an age they didn’t necessarily live through or possibly don’t remember well.  Vladimir Putin has (or had) a sort of Cold War mystique.  Bernie Sanders evokes the radicalism of the 1960’s.  Trump’s fans want to Make America Great Again.  Jeremy Corbyn, a beard-and-sandals socialist, is a throwback to the 1970’s.  Mogg, a.k.a. “The Honourable Member for the Early 20th Century,” appeals to a certain historical memory of Englishness from the interwar years.

He is a gentleman to the last detail, well-mannered to the point of being mannered, his voice an anachronism.  His appeal is based on an ironic appreciation of his preposterousness, which is at once funny and deadly serious.  His humor is perhaps as alien to foreigners as Trump’s can be to people who don’t understand New York values.

Nevertheless, Mogg has an American fan club, especially among the young on the right.  With his fogeyness, fussy shirts, and faith in small government, he speaks to the intellectual grandchildren of William F. Buckley.  As a young writer called Will Collier recently declared in National Review, “his classical liberalism is much closer to American conservatism than to traditional English Toryism.”

In fact, Mogg is a quarter American: His grandmother on his father’s side was Beatrice Warren, an actress.  This genealogy might in part explain why Mogg so often seems to be playing up to the American stereotype of an English country gentleman.  It also might explain why he confesses to being a big fan of Dallas, the TV show.  He once included Larry Hagman (who played the ruthless oil billionaire J.R. Ewing in Dallas) on a list of people he’d like to meet, along with Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher.  Mogg also takes holidays in America, and talks in Churchillian terms about the merits of the Special Relationship.  In short, he is an old-school Atlanticist.

Mogg is often compared to Bertie Wooster, the Wodehousian character, who also enjoys a cult following across the pond.  Actually, Bertie’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, who famously wears horn-rimmed spectacles like Mogg, might make for a better like-for-like visual comparison.  But neither Bertie nor Gussie will do, since they are entertaining fools, and Mogg is exceptionally bright.

Jacob’s father was not some hopeless duke but William Rees-Mogg, the late editor of the Times of London and an enthusiast of Austrian School Economics.  William was known as “Mystic Mogg” because his predictions were often wrong, but he had a first-rate mind, and a sense of decorum that his son has clearly inherited.  In fact, he was the first man I ever interviewed as a journalist in 2004, and he was delightful, modest, and engaging.  He told me he thought there was “a happy alliance between those who are now in their 70’s and those who are in their 20’s, who see the intervening generation as fairly absurd.”  Jacob’s mother, Gillian, was Mogg’s secretary, and she seems to have a sparky intellect, too, if recent press interviews are anything to go by.

Jacob started adult life not in politics but in finance—and he’s a fairly ruthless operator.  He spent 20 years working in the City, London’s equivalent of Wall Street, and he has made a lot of money speculating on the economies of the developing world.

He set up his own company, Somerset Capital Management, after he fell out with his former employer Lloyd George Management, where he had been one of their star fund managers.  Somerset now manages about £7.5 billion ($10 billion) of its clients’ money, so no small beer.

The Financial Times has sniffed at Mogg’s record in emerging markets.  A rather gleeful article from October 2017 tried to point out that he had underperformed the market.  But the Financial Times is poisonous about Rees-Mogg, because he is a darling of Brexit, and the FT despises Brexit.  The truth is, he’s clearly good with money.  And he’s just bought a large townhouse in Westminster: A tabloid newspaper made front-page news of the fact it was closer to the Houses of Parliament than the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street.  Mogg married an heiress, too, which suggests an un-Woosterish firmness of the heart.

Still, he plays to the media gallery—hamming up his “poshness” for the hacks and the cameras, just as the Donald enjoys playing the rogue on Twitter.  Mogg famously went out campaigning with his childhood nanny.  He recorded a Channel 4 television show in the north, where he went about talking to working-class people in his awkwardly plummy tones, even compèring a bingo session.  He set the record for the longest word ever used in Parliament when he said “floccinaucinihilipilification” in a debate about the European Court in Luxembourg.  The record was then broken by a teenage boy, Michael Brown, who said “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” at a Youth Select Committee inquiry.  Mogg, in turn, called him a “hero of our times.”  We British do so love our japes.

He might not have Trump’s genius for coining cruel nicknames (Little Marco, etc.), but like the President he’s an aggressive counterpuncher.  He once called Max Mosley, son of Sir Oswald, a “degenerate libertine.”  When the television presenter David Dimbleby mocked him for having had the privilege of being educated at Eton, the famous school, he snapped back, “I was there with your son.”  When the Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow, a media grandee, asked him about the “shambles” in which Britain found herself, he told him, “When you call it a shambles, you say that it’s a butcher’s slaughterhouse . . . ”  Snow interrupted, “You use that phrase, not me.”  Mogg countered, “No, that’s what a shambles means.  I’m surprised you don’t know: most uncharacteristic.”

Mogg revels in making his interrogators angry, and such moments are played over and over by his fans on YouTube.  He’s a viral politician in the Internet Age.  There’s a “Can’t Clogg the Mogg” meme, for instance, which often clogs up my YouTube feed, especially since I began researching this piece.

Mogg’s championing of populist causes and his sharp tongue have meant, inevitably, he has fallen foul of Britain’s elite liberal class.  Again, as with Trump, there is also a media campaign to connect Mogg to the dodgy kleptocratic world of the Kremlin.  On May 27, the Mail on Sunday, another fiercely “Remain” paper, ran a long exposé of Somerset’s investments in Russia, including large holdings in Sberbank, which is part-owned by the Russian state, and Lukoil, a murky energy company with links to Cambridge Analytica, the now notorious election consultancy firm that also worked on—you’ve guessed it—Donald Trump’s election campaign.

“Considering his vociferously pro-Brexit beliefs, you might expect Jacob Rees-Mogg’s firm would put its money where his mouth is and invest in British businesses,” wrote Ruth Sutherland, in an opinion piece accompanying the Mail on Sunday exposé.

Rees-Mogg takes a bulldog stance on the UK economy, pooh-poohing anyone who suggests it might suffer as a result of Brexit, including the Bank of England’s governor Mark Carney, whose careful analyses he brushes aside.

 

How curious, then, that the investment firm he set up has virtually no stake at all in British businesses—in a clear signal of belief stronger growth lies elsewhere.

This was dirty politics masquerading as journalism.  Nobody seemed to bother to point out that Mogg doesn’t have anything to do with the running of Somerset’s funds and hasn’t for some time.  Or that Somerset, as an emerging market investor, is actually forbidden to invest in Great Britain.  It’s what the New York Times does concerning Trump’s alleged “collusion” with Putin; nobody at the Mail on Sunday or the Daily Mail wants the truth to get in the way of a loud headline that links Brexit and Russia.

Such naked attempts to undermine Mogg as a political leader may be futile anyway, since Mogg himself doesn’t seem to want to be a leader.  He rather winningly calls talk of his being Tory leader or Prime Minister “a vanity.”  Westminster watchers scoff at that as faux modesty, and his critics insist Mogg has been maneuvering for the Tory top job since he was an adolescent.

Matthew Parris wrote a fantastically vicious attack on Mogg in the Times, simultaneously trashing his character while taking him seriously as a leadership menace.  He wrote,

The self-caricature is ridiculous, of course (and slightly naff: the seriously grand don’t dress up, don’t stand on ceremony and don’t hyphenate; the Rees-Moggs are just rich people from Somerset whose boy never outgrew a silly phase at Oxford) but he makes the joke with panache.  He can survive it.  When the joking is past he will simply say so.  People will understand.

 

. . . Though he’s a shin-kicker when rattled, his ostentatious courtesy wins admirers.  Though slyer in argument than his earnest manner pretends, he’s careful to avoid direct lies.  I suspect he’s never been the financial genius his supporters claim but he has a fine philosophical mind. . . . There is intellectual steel beneath the silk.

Nevertheless, I’ve spoken to friends of Mogg who say he really doesn’t want to be leader.  I think I believe them.  One source said, interestingly, they thought he was too idle for the top job.  Perhaps that languid bearing of his isn’t a pose.

It’s Mogg’s fans, not Mogg, who seem to be pushing him toward the Tory leadership.  They include a campaign group called Moggmentum.  (More slightly tiresome British banter: The hard-left grassroots movement driving Jeremy Corbyn’s success is called Momentum.  “Geddit?” as they say in the satirical magazine Private Eye.)  An affiliate group, Ready for Rees-Mogg, has even gone so far as to hire American election-data analysts to look into Mogg’s electoral prospects—though I understand that contract has now been abandoned.

Why then do his admirers so desperately want him to lead?  The most obvious reason is that they believe him to be the only man who can shake the Tory Party out of its Brexit funk.  Ever since the referendum vote to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016, the Conservatives have been paralyzed with division and doubt.  The leading Brexiteers—Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, and Liam Fox—all maneuver incessantly, but none of them appears to be a true believer in quite the way Mogg is.  Johnson is perhaps equally chauvinistic about Britain, but young voters seem to buy into Mogg’s patriotism more—when he cites the old saw that to be born British is “to win first prize in the lottery of life,” he seems to mean it.  And whereas Johnson is at heart a London media creature, Mogg is profoundly attached to rural English life.  He calls the part of Somerset where he grew up, and which he now represents as a Member of Parliament, “God’s own country.”

His outsider status—he’s never been a front-rank politician—means he can get away with being far more robust on Brexit than the Cabinet.  He can take a hard line without bumping into realpolitik, or at least that’s what his jealous Tory opponents say.  His fans just reckon that, unlike the Westminster lot, he has principles.  He’s as committed to getting Britain out of the European Union as Nigel Farage, and he lacks Farage’s wide-boy vulgarity.

Mogg is often accused of holding Prime Minister Theresa May “to ransom” over Brexit by undercutting her in the media.  But it’s hard not to see that his position on Brexit makes more sense than May’s.  The Prime Minister said, famously, that “Brexit means Brexit,” but as her negotiations go on, it seems increasingly obvious that the government is at a loss over what sort of deal to strike with the E.U.  May, who voted to remain in the European Union, is clearly very uncertain about leaving it, so she is often compromising on trade, on the Customs Union, and on the northern Irish border—the key flashpoints as Britain seeks to extricate herself from the European Union.  Mogg, who seems to know more about the art of the deal than May, thinks we should be far more aggressive with our negotiating hand.

Take Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U.’s Customs Union, which May is fudging over for the (understandable) fear that Britain’s leaving it will damage trading relationships with our European neighbors.  She’s been pushing instead for a “customs partnership” with the E.U.  This is a ludicrously complex system by which, apparently, high-tech equipment would track E.U. goods and allocate correct tariffs so as to avoid “country of origin” checks.  No?  Me neither.

And yet Boris Johnson at first seemed to approve the partnership idea, perhaps because as foreign secretary he felt compelled to support the administration.  But then he reversed course and called it crazy.  Mogg, the maverick, has always been more clear-eyed and opposed it from the moment it was announced, and Brexiteers admire him for that.

Mogg’s rebelliousness has the virtue of being consistent.  He has always insisted that, far from enabling free trade, the Customs Union is harmful in the long run to the British economy, and therefore we are better off without it.  For this, he was recently accused of being a closet “protectionist” by the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

“The Customs Union applies tariffs of 22 percent on average on food, it’s over 11 percent on clothing and footwear,” he replied.

Once we’ve left, we can get rid of these as a unilateral act.  We will be free to open up our markets to the huge benefits of consumers.  We have a real opportunity for free trade.  That’s where the benefits of leaving the European Union come from.  That’s why it’s so essential to leave the customs union. . . . The customs union is a protectionist racket, protecting inefficient continental industries.

His clarity—perhaps it is stubbornness—on these matters enrages his opponents and pro-E.U. “Remainers,” who are as determined to stop Brexit as the American “Resistance” is to impeach Trump.  The New Statesman calls Mogg “the polite extremist.”  Matthew Parris says, “for the 21st-century Conservative Party, Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock.”  Of course, this is music to Moggmentum ears.  Their attitude is that progressives and the wets only despise “the Moggster” because they know, deep down, that he’s right.

But the real reason British left-liberals abhor Mogg—or at least think he is in no way fit for high office—is more fundamental than Brexit.  Mogg is a Catholic.  Worse than that, he’s an orthodox Catholic: i.e., he seems really to believe.  He has six children, and he opposes gay marriage and abortion, even though that makes him anathema to most metropolitans and television interviewers.  In September last year, he clashed with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on ITV breakfast television.  The interview caused a brief sensation because, when asked if he opposed abortion even in cases of rape, Mogg replied: “Afraid so.”  The left-liberal elite didn’t like that.  “Jacob Rees-Mogg is entitled to his views however archaic they may be,” tweeted the former England football player Gary Lineker, who has decided he is an important voice in British politics.  “But hopefully any plans for him to be the next PM will be aborted.”

Again, however, the polls showed Mogg’s popularity continuing to rise.  That’s because, even if people disagree with him about homosexuality or abortion, the public is desperate for politicians who say what they believe, not what some focus group has told them to say.  Mogg is exactly that.  Tony Blair claimed to be a Catholic, but never let that get in the way of his progressive politics on abortion, homosexuality, and starting a war in Iraq.  Rees-Mogg seems (like Blair) quite hawkish—he’s consistently voted for British military intervention overseas—but his refusal to compromise his morality means that people trust him in a way they don’t trust other politicians.

In May this year, Mogg was grilled for his faith by the BBC, and he produced a master class for any devout politician trying to get ahead in a secular age.  On the Daily Politics program, presenter Jo Coburn brought up Ruth Davidson, another favorite to be next Tory leader, who is also lesbian and pregnant.  It made for quite a fascinating exchange:

JC: “[Ruth Davidson] has said the party needs to be a little more joyful, appealing to the young.  She’s also somebody who is gay, engaged to be married, and pregnant.  Do you have a problem with any of that?”

 

JRM: “None of that at all.  It’s up to her how to lead her life.  I think it’s wonderful she’s expecting a baby.  It’s a huge joy.  As a father of six, I think it’s very exciting when people are bringing a new life into the world . . . ”

JC: “So you would be happy to support her as leader?”

JRM: “ . . . She’s a formidably capable person. . . . I’m not going to put the finger of doom on any candidate at this stage; it’s far too dangerous a business, that.”

JC: “But you wouldn’t support her marriage to the woman whom she wants to marry?”

JRM: “This is an issue of sacramentality.  The sacrament of marriage is one that is defined by the Church, not by the state, and the sacrament of marriage is available to a man and a woman, and this is the teaching of the Catholic Church, which I accept.”

JC: “Right, but can you see that is a problem for many people?  If you are going to be a senior politician—you already are a senior politician . . . [and] that you hold those views about some of your colleagues who want to be married and are gay?”

JRM: “I make no criticisms of any of my colleagues.  But do you believe in religious tolerance?”

JC: “I do.”

JRM: “So why do you pick on this view of the Catholic Church?”

JC: “I’m just asking you . . . ”

JRM: “Well, I’m now asking you.  Why do you pick on the views of the Catholic Church and say that you can’t hold these in modern politics[?]”

JC: “I’m saying there are people who might have a problem with it.”

JRM: “You’re saying that tolerance only goes so far and that you should not be tolerant of the teaching of the Catholic Church.  So isn’t this stretching into religious bigotry?”

JC: “Except, is it a barrier, do you think, to holding high office?”

JRM: “That’s a different question.  That’s not the one you asked . . . ”

JC: “All right, well that is what I meant to say . . . ”

JRM: “It is really important to get to the heart of this because this country believes in religious tolerance.  We are a very tolerant nation.  And the act of tolerance is to tolerate things you don’t agree with, not just ones you do agree with, and the problem with liberal tolerance is it has got to the point of only tolerating what it likes . . . ”

JC: “Don’t assume what I think or that I am attacking.  I’m raising an issue that your colleagues have raised.”

JRM: “I’m just reading into your question.  And the Catholic Church, of great antiquity, has taught these things.  And it is absolutely legitimate for Catholics in public life, in private life, to believe and accept the teaching of the Catholic Church, as it is for Muslims to believe the teachings of Islam, and likewise for Anglicans, but also for agnostics and atheists.”

JC: “But if you wanted to hold high office, or if somebody who held those views wanted to hold high office, would they be a barrier?”

JRM: “It would be a matter for voters to decide, but what’s important is that I should be honest with voters about my views and make no bones about the fact that I am a practicing Catholic . . . ”

The video of the interview, inevitably, went wild on the Internet.  It was a classic example of what social-media users call “owning”; Rees-Mogg has “destroyed” the classic BBC attitude toward religion.  Jo Coburn, who is by no means the worst of the BBC’s interviewers, was roundly mocked for having been so thrashed by a superior intellect.  As the political gossip site Guido Fawkes pointed out, “We had Catholic Emancipation in 1829.”

Nevertheless, Mogg’s Catholicism probably would be a hurdle to his achieving high office.  Britain is not as anti-Catholic as it was, but it is now post-Christian, and people who talk about “sacramentality” are thought weird.

Mogg is often caricatured as a Catholic reactionary.  In truth, his faith is more complex, and it intersects with his Thatcherite faith in the free market.  His father, William, was a liberal Catholic who became slightly disgruntled by the consequences of the Second Vatican Council and the politicization of the Church.  He was also a supporter of the European Union who turned strongly against it as the E.U. project grew more federalist and ambitious.

It seems that Jacob has taken his father’s disgruntlement with modern Catholicism and Catholic Europe a step further.  He’s almost religious in his conviction that the European Union is a left-wing conspiracy, and he’s traditionalist in his faith.  (Interestingly, however, his father told me that he himself was “more influenced by my children than my contemporaries”—so perhaps his precocious son pushed him to the right.)

Mogg prefers Mass in the Extraordinary Form, for instance, and says guitars should be banned from churches.  Once, when asked if he was bringing up his children in an ecumenical household, he replied, smartly, “No they’ve grown up in a very Catholic household.”

Mogg says Maarrrs, rather than Maasss, of course, as most smartyboots English Catholics do.  But he’s no grim Lefebvrist.  He’s quite gentle, humorous, even Chestertonian about his spirituality.  He once joked that, if Brexit lost, he’d have to retreat to a Trappist monastery “because people would want me to shut up for a bit.”  He often talks about how unenthusiastic he was about Maaaarrrs as a young man, and one of his favorites saints is St. Alphege, whom he describes as a “low-tax martyr.”

Mogg also pulled off the remarkable feat of obtaining permission for his Catholic marriage—to the heiress Helena de Chair—to be celebrated in Canterbury Cathedral, Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  This suggests a brilliant, almost Trump-like ability to get what he wants.  It was a nuptial Mass, and the choir sang Monteverdi’s Salve Regina.  And if he can achieve that, maybe he really is ready to pull off something as difficult as Brexit.

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