Catholics cannot abandon the public square

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP speaks during a 'Bruges Group' press conference at on May 17, 2016 (Getty Images)

Suzanne Moore, the Guardian columnist, has taken issue with Jacob Rees-Mogg, or more accurately with Mr Rees-Mogg’s Catholicism. Her conclusion is stark: “As usual, Rees-Mogg’s religious faith is used to excuse his appalling bigotry. He is a Catholic and this kind of fundamentalism is always anti-women, but for some reason we are to respect it. I don’t. It has no place in public life.”

We have been here before, for this is not the first time that a left-leaning figure has declared that Catholics must be excluded from public life. Back in 2008, the MEP Mary Honeyball made a similar point, directed against Catholic members of Gordon Brown’s cabinet. She asked: “Should devout Catholics such as Kelly, Browne and Murphy be allowed on the government front bench in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope’s word above the government’s?” Not everyone was impressed by this at the time.

The Suzanne Moore line is essentially the Honeyball line: people who disagree must be excluded from the conversation. Such an arrangement would hardly be good for democracy or the health of public conversation. Indeed, enforced uniformity of opinion, and the silencing of religious teaching, was a characteristic of the Soviet Union. How did that experiment end? Not well, I seem to remember.

In all of this one fact is in danger of being overlooked, and that is that Mr Rees-Mogg is no fool, and is playing a subtle political game. By reminding everyone of his deeply held Catholic views (which, incidentally I fully support) at this moment, he is inviting people like Ms Moore to react, knowing that he is now better placed to deal with the issue that he may ever be. The predictable reaction to his full disclosure of a religious faith that he has never tried to hide means that these guns, now firing off, will in future be silent, or at least, if fired off again, disregarded. He is effectively neutralising this opposition to his political advancement at an early stage. Wise move.

The second thing that Mr Rees-Mogg is doing, in getting himself talked about as a successor to Mrs May, is putting himself forward not as a candidate for Downing Street, but for a more modest ministerial post. He is effectively asking to be tested by the burdens of office, and there is every indication that this challenge will be taken up. If he succeeds as a minister (and many don’t) then his suitability for one of the great offices of state will be greatly increased.

The third thing that Mr Rees-Mogg is doing is advertising the fact that he is in fact a conservative in a Conservative Party where conservatives are remarkably few in the upper reaches of the party. Conservatives in the country as a whole (many of them not necessarily Conservative voters) will see in Jacob Rees-Mogg the sort of thing they like, and which they have not been getting from people like David Cameron and Justine Greening, or even Theresa May.

Jacob Rees-Mogg can with conviction present himself as an alternative to the social liberal Toryism of people like Greening. In this he has one huge advantage: he is intelligent, sincere and coherent. Social liberal Tories fall short in most of these departments. The party may well want to promote him in order to show that conservatives are still welcome in what is very far from being a conservative party.

I am sure that we will be seeing a great deal more of Mr Rees-Mogg in future. He is not likely to go the way of Tim Farron, hounded out of office thanks to his religious faith. Nor is the Conservative party likely to treat him the way they treated their former MP Andrew Turner. I have met Mr Rees-Mogg on a couple of occasions: he is a good speaker and a pleasant man. I think we should watch his career with interest, not because Catholics should support the Conservative party, but because we should all, whatever our political views, want to see religious people, particularly our co-religionists, take part in public life.

Please let us not abandon the public square to people like Mary Honeyball.