The unlikely rise of Jacob Rees-Mogg

This week's cover (Christian Adams)

It seems hardly possible to credit but it is impossible to ignore. Had one predicted it in 2010 it would have been thought the forecast of a deranged mind, and even on the eve of the Brexit referendum no serious political commentator would have given the idea credence. Yet the fact remains: Jacob Rees-Mogg is favourite to be the next Conservative leader – and, therefore, Prime Minister.

At the time of writing Rees-Mogg is at 7/2 with all the major bookmakers. It seems as if one can’t open a newspaper or political magazine without finding a interview with, attack on or profile of the man (forgive me, reader, for adding to that library).

Were he to become Prime Minister – and that conditional is a heavy one – he would be the first Catholic holder of that office in our nation’s history. It’s not unreasonable to ask, then, whether he is now, or could shortly become, the most powerful Catholic in Britain, and to enquire how he arrived at this startlingly unexpected position.

Rees-Mogg’s religious upbringing was resoundingly normal for a man of his background. Catechised by his governess as a child, he was taken to Mass each week at his parish church in Somerset, the Church of the Holy Ghost, Midsomer Norton.

Rees-Mogg has spoken about his distinct lack of enthusiasm for the faith when a child. “I didn’t particularly like going when I was little,” he recalled in an interview with this magazine five years ago, “and I remember one week we had to go in London because we were there for the weekend, and I was very puzzled, somewhat put out, because it said every week in the Creed that we believed in ‘one holy Catholic Church’. I couldn’t understand how that allowed us to go in London. I thought I was being swindled and I should have got a weekend off.”

This is somewhat at odds with the perception of his being almost monk-like in his devotion, attending Mass daily and exhibiting extreme piety. It seems his feelings about religion varied, in common with most Catholic children, from boredom to apathy depending on the season.

By the time Rees-Mogg was at Eton, however, he was known for being a conservative Catholic. Schoolfriends remember that he was only sent out of class twice: once for wearing a large blue Conservative rosette; and once for arguing with a beak (teacher) about papal infallibility.

The clue to this can be found in Rees-Mogg’s relationship with his father William, editor of the Times during Jacob’s childhood, pillar of the Establishment from cradle to grave (as his Daily Telegraph obituary put it) and staunch, if liberal, Catholic. In 2004 Lord Rees-Mogg told the Catholic Herald: “My ideal of Catholicism is that of Pope John XXIII, an essentially relaxed system, focused on prayer and on love.”
It would take a boy with quite remarkable strength of character not to be overawed by and turned into a clone of such a father.

In this Rees-Mogg appears to have succeeded by emulating his father but plus ultra. Whether in business success, dress, deportment, reverence for tradition yet curiously modern politics, or adherence to a personal code that would have seemed quaintly old fashioned at the time of the Coronation, Jacob amplifies all that William exemplified. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in his Catholicism.

Lord Rees-Mogg believed friendship with popes and potentates to be a facet of his liberal Catholicism, being himself primarily an internationalist (witness his fervent early support of the European project, though this did sour after Maastricht). Jacob has no such belief. In politics he is a traditionalist, a patriot of the Imperial school whose belief is in the Rhodesian formula of Englishmen winning life’s lottery. In religion he is fervent in his support of the one holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.

His conservatism in religion and in politics have certain parallels. He believes that the world works better when run in a Burkean fashion, adhering to tried-and-tested principles except where they prove themselves unfit for purpose, and then to be modified only as much as is required to ensure continuance. To give but one example, Rees-Mogg’s preference for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass sits firmly within this frame of reference – and resonates with Catholic millennials.

In an increasingly fragmented world in which the old certainties of faith and politics are under relentless attack from within and without, it is the most tremendous relief to see a man in public life standing for order, for tradition, for, as Rees-Mogg himself puts it, “the accumulated knowledge of 2,000 years of revelation to the Church”.

He has an undoubted appeal to the more Bridesheady sort of Oxbridge (or wannabe Oxbridge) undergraduate, but that is aesthetic rather than substantial – though it would be foolish to discount the importance of a superficial following in an age defined by its superficiality. Among young Catholics, this tends to be less important than Rees-Mogg’s willingness to attest in public repeatedly, on television, radio, podcasts and in Parliament, to the validity of Catholic dogma and its being no disqualifier for holding public office.

The shining example of this was his appearance on Good Morning Britain, when he discussed those beacons of politically correct posturing, same-sex marriage and abortion. During the interview he stated quite simply: “I am a Catholic and I take the teachings of the Catholic Church seriously.”

Rees-Mogg said much the same thing to me when asked to comment for this article: “As regards being liberal or not, I merely accept the teaching of the Church and the authority of its hierarchy.” This lack of apology for (or worse, embarrassment about) his adherence to the teachings of the Church has endeared him to the many young Catholics who feel their opinions are not only discounted but also despised when voiced in the public arena.

There are other Catholics, though – particularly on the Left – who regard Rees-Mogg with a kind of horror. His personal wealth and his outspoken support for the free market leads some to conclude that he is indifferent to the poor. When I put this to him, he answers baldly: “Capitalism has lifted the poor out of poverty. In 1918, 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty according to the World Bank’s statistics, or 52 per cent of the world’s population. This has fallen to 767 million people, or 10.7 per cent of the population in 2013. This dramatic improvement coincides with China and India moving to market economies. Hence it is the capitalists who love the poor, not the socialists who condemn them to poverty.”

Rees-Mogg believes utterly in the power of the market to lift the world out of poverty. This conviction, nurtured since childhood, was solidified during his time in finance. He has achieved considerable success by investing in emerging markets, first with Robert Lloyd George and then with his own company, Somerset Capital Management. There is no waffle about “sharing the proceeds of growth”. For Rees-Mogg, the market works – and should be left to do so.

This is the key to his popularity: simplicity. He does not obfuscate. He does not speak in soundbites. He treats voters as intelligent, informed individuals capable of grasping complex subjects and forming an opinion of their own. When he appears on programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time, he is listened to in near-reverential silence because he refuses to spin a party line seemingly designed for particularly backward toddlers.

In an appearance on the programme last October, the audience applauded when he suggested that the BBC should be renamed the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”. “Dear old Auntie,” he said. “How many times have we heard on the BBC ‘in spite of Brexit’? In spite of Brexit a record three million jobs have been created since 2010. In spite of Brexit unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975. In spite of Brexit England defeated the West Indies at Lords.”

In an age of artifice, fake news and spin, this authenticity is his greatest weapon. In the words of Professor Philip Cowley, a political scientist, “If he stands in any forthcoming leadership contest, [and] he gets through to the last two, he’ll walk it.”

The comparison between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn has been made occasionally. I find it lazy and unconvincing. In speaking calmly and clearly about such subjects as abortion and papal infallibility, Rees-Mogg is adhering to the hierarchy of the Church and its dogma. This moral certainty does not bear comparison with the actions of Mr Corbyn, a man content to ally himself with any and all espousing a vaguely socialist message regardless of their questionable morals. To attempt a comparison between the two is like drawing parallels between Louis XIV and Zeppo Marx.

The primary obstacle to Rees-Mogg becoming Conservative leader is his ability to be selected as a candidate by the Parliamentary party. But with Theresa May bombing in the polls and Brexit teetering on the edge of success and failure, it would be a foolish man indeed who wrote off the possibility of seeing Rees-Mogg attain the greatest of all political prizes: the office of Prime Minister.

David Oldroyd-Bolt is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the March 16 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here