Michael Ashcroft has written a shrewd yet sympathetic portrait of an intriguing politician
Michael Ashcroft’s biography of Jacob Rees-Mogg (Biteback Publishing £20) makes for interesting reading. Although described as “unauthorised”, it is a shrewd yet sympathetic portrait of an intriguing politician, written by a major Conservative Party philanthropist and author with a special interest in courage (he is a collector of VC medals). Ashcroft gives two reasons for his choice of subject-matter: Rees-Mogg is a prominent Conservative MP and “he is young enough to have a substantial future in politics.”
Prominent, yes; but prime minister by the age of 70, which was Rees-Mogg’s youthful ambition? I think not, though Ashcroft’s book concludes with an open-ended question on this. Having read it, I still think his subject is too unusual in his style and manner, too out of step with the modern demand of being “woke”, which has inevitably affected the behaviour of almost all public figures, to be a realistic candidate to lead the 21st century Tory Party. But I also think Ashcroft is intrigued by the idea of courage: a thread running through his book is that it takes courage to stand out against popular attitudes towards morality and religion, as his subject unfailingly does.
A school-friend from Rees-Mogg’s Eton schooldays, in which he was noted for his dress, mannerisms and independence of thought, commented that “It took courage to be him” and the wife of Rees-Mogg’s housemaster made the telling remark that he refused to be a victim “First he was derided, then tolerated, then greatly respected.” This, to a large extent, has been true of his parliamentary career. When your class enemy is always calm under fire, invariably courteous but never giving an inch on fundamental principles, you have to admire this consistency, confidence – and courage.
Leaving aside his subject’s clearly very happy marriage and family life, it is obvious from this book that the most significant influence on Rees-Mogg’s was his father, William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times, with whom he had an exceptionally close relationship. Neither his mother nor his wife are Catholics; apart from anything else, it was from his father that he imbibed his strong religious faith – and his love of Somerset, where the Mogg side of the family has roots going back to the 13th century. Indeed, when, after two failed attempts to enter Parliament Rees-Mogg won North East Somerset, he told his friend, MP Simon Hoare, whom he has known since Oxford, “I’ve died and gone to heaven.” It is not an affectation when he describes himself as “a man of Somerset.”
Hoare also states that his friend hasn’t got “a snobbish bone in his body. He will talk to anybody.” This will come as a surprise to those who jump to conclusions based on Rees-Mogg’s refusal to modify his accent and his love of double-breasted suits, but it is borne out by Ashcroft’s account. At his wedding reception, an attendee said he sat next to Rees-Mogg’s postman. He has also taken his nanny, a much-loved figure in the whole Rees-Mogg family, to Glyndebourne – along with the Filipino maid he brought back to work for him in the UK after a three-year stint working in Hong Kong, and whom it is said he taught to make bread-and-butter pudding while he lived there.
That Rees-Mogg is very rich and that he has been interested in making money since boyhood, when his father would give him a £1 a week pocket money in an annual sum so that he could invest it, is not in doubt. He also has a weakness for chocolate, noticeable since his Eton and Oxford days and, it has to be said, for the limelight. Even before reading this biography I had noted its subject’s penchant for being ready and available to address the media with aplomb outside Westminster during the febrile final months of Theresa May’s premiership. He is a natural performer.
Nonetheless, Ashcroft recognises that the key to his subject, which underlies everything else – his Tory principles, his wealth, his sartorial sense, his characteristic foibles – is his Catholic faith. In an almost impossible feat, given the media’s hostility to those who stick to Christian teachings on marriage and the sanctity of life, Rees-Mogg manages to make his beliefs sound coherent, thoughtful and steadfast. He has said of his faith, “If you are doing something different, you need to have a confidence that it is important.” He is unrepentant about taking his “whip from Rome” on moral matters.
In this respect, I think one of the quotes singled out by Ashcroft explains Rees-Mogg’s character. At an event in February 2019 organised by The Spectator, he stated, “I greatly dislike the term “ordinary people” because there is no such thing as an “ordinary person”. Each person is special. And if you are special in God’s eyes, you ought to be special to your elected representatives – all the more so. That underpins everything I want to do politically.”
To live out that kind of principled conduct, integrity and courtesy is rare in a politician. Like Ashcroft, I hope Rees-Mogg does have a substantial future in politics.