To most of Britain’s Catholic population, Jacob Rees-Mogg is, to say the least, a curious figure.
Unlike many Catholic Parliamentarians, not only does Rees-Mogg say he is a Catholic but he votes in Parliament the way a Catholic should on certain—non-negotiable—issues. Furthermore, he is quite happy to tell the world this, and, refreshingly, without apology or equivocation.
This is so rare in modern British politics as to be jaw-dropping for some, mystifying for others, and a red rag to the usual suspects. Why this has not damaged Rees-Mogg as a political figure is the real mystery. That he is still talked of as a possible leader of Britain’s center right Conservative Party is nigh on miraculous.
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Part mystery, part showman, Rees-Mogg remains every part a politician. How his story will end is as yet unclear. What is certain, however, is that he should not be underestimated.
The name “Rees-Mogg” was well known to the previous generation. Jacob’s father, William Rees-Mogg, was the editor of The Times from 1967 to 1981. Rees-Mogg Senior was also Catholic, and known for views that were deemed anachronistic by some, and reactionary by others. The same could be said of how his son’s views have been categorized. Father and son’s respective entries into politics are similar too. As is the way with aspiring politicians, both stood for election as Conservative Party candidates in unwinnable seats. Both constituencies were in Labour Party strongholds. Both men were trounced at the ballot box. The father tried once more and failed, thereafter deciding to concentrate on journalism. In the 2001 General Election, the son went back again to fight for an unwinnable seat, and again lost heavily. Eventually, however, at the 2010 General Election, Jacob was chosen as a candidate for a safe Tory seat. He has been the Member of Parliament for North East Somerset ever since, and, barring a scandal or a political earthquake, will be the MP for that constituency for as long as he wishes to remain so.
Other than a healthy majority in his constituency, Rees-Mogg has something else that allows him to be more outspoken than most: personal wealth. Before he entered Parliament he worked in banking and then wealth management. By all accounts, he made a great deal of money, and continues as a partner in the firm he helped to establish. His wife comes from wealthy stock. In short, the Rees-Mogg family is not solely dependent on an MP’s salary. So unlike a good number of MPs, this allows Rees-Mogg a certain freedom of expression unavailable to those who must keep happy at all costs the Local Constituency Association and the Party Whips to ensure job security.
Rees-Mogg has something else also in short supply in the corridors of Westminster today. He speaks like a human being. There is no spin or “media speak” coming from the mouth of the Right Honourable Member for North East Somerset. His speech is not only intelligent and intelligible, but original, urbane, even witty at times. In short, he is far too bright for the drivel that political “spin doctors” and their ilk visit upon the public on a daily basis.
There is a growing band of British politicians who are similarly gifted—Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, to name but a few. Interestingly, they come from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. All are equally popular with their respective constituencies and, indeed, further afield, simply on account of being able to say things that are not stage managed or written by a committee, often one comprised largely of Artificial Intelligence. Sadly, this ability to communicate is something so obviously lacking in the British politics of today as to appear almost revelatory when it does appear. To prove this point, in the case of Rees-Mogg, his communication skills have been rewarded with a radio show on a national network.
So Rees-Mogg has all the hallmarks of a skilled and determined politician and the right “tone” for the current moment. His political instincts are good, his knack of turning the most hostile interrogator around almost preternatural. His capacity for self-promotion in subtle and, at times, in not so subtle ways is well-honed and effective. The fact that his background is one of privilege and wealth—public school (Eton), Oxford University and then a successful career in finance—makes his ability to endear himself to a large segment of the British public both incredible and baffling. As I said, I would never underestimate him.
So what of his Catholicism? Rees-Mogg attends Holy Mass each Sunday. Reports suggest he prefers to attend the Tridentine Rite. Whether this is on account of a liturgical preference or merely a preference for older things—he is nicknamed “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century”—is open to conjecture. He recently declared that he tries to say the Rosary each day. One can only imagine the liberal media’s representatives listening to this wondering if they had heard him right, “And, anyway, what is the Rosary?”
His views on abortion appear consistent with his Catholicism—he is opposed in all circumstances. He opposes attempts to change the law on euthanasia. Equally, his position on marriage is consistent with Catholic teaching in his support of traditional marriage. (Although—confusingly, to both his supporters and detractors—he stated recently he would attend a “gay marriage if invited” as they are now legal.) Still there is none of the faux anguish of certain Catholic politicians who want to keep both Party—of whatever hue—and a Catholic electorate happy at the same time, even when on certain subjects both party and church are diametrically opposed to each other. The fact that there are no such tensions in Rees-Mogg’s public life is in itself an excellent witness.
At a recent talk given at a Catholic school to students on retreat, Rees-Mogg urged the young people to consider entering public life as Catholics willing to speak up for their beliefs. Perhaps, more surprisingly, he urged those present to consider a still higher calling, namely a religious vocation: “The sacrifice made by monks and nuns is terrific,” he said, before elaborating further, it is “not just in our service but most importantly the service to God.”
At the same event, Rees-Mogg spoke of how, when he talked plainly of what he believed in the media, he received letters that disagreed with his views but that often those same letter writers would then thank him for having had the conviction to state them. Whatever one’s political persuasion, Rees-Mogg has a quality that almost everyone admires: courage.
During the last couple of years, the media spotlight attracted by Rees-Mogg has brought him to national attention in a way that many of his contemporaries have not been able to match. It would be fair to say that all politicians crave attention. They need media attention if they are to succeed, and, above all, to be elected and then re-elected. They all court this attention, though few manage to harness it properly for career advancement. It is with Rees-Mogg’s eye-catching appearances on national media and the subsequent headlines that ensure that talk began about “leadership potential,” “leadership campaigns” and the like. The fact that the current Conservative Party appears to many bereft of leadership only makes the emergence of Rees-Mogg all the more appealing to some within it.
The reason he will, in all likelihood, not, however, become leader of the Tories, and thus a possible Prime Minister has, one suspects, less to do with his Catholicism than the current state of the nation and his own party over Brexit. Rees-Mogg is on the right of the Conservative Party, economically and socially, as well as a firm advocate for Brexit. As with the country, the Conservative Party is also split over the forthcoming departure from Europe and how that should be managed. In such circumstances a “unity candidate” may be sought. A moderate, middle of the road individual who will quietly attempt to heal division—or so the reasoning goes. At the end of the day, Rees-Mogg may just be too opinionated, too colorful, too bright for the grey, increasingly identikit for individuals who manage the British political scene.
Once I had the pleasure of being at a gathering where Rees-Mogg was to speak. It was a dinner followed by a talk by the MP on the Catholic in public life or some such. He did not turn up for the dinner—“business at the House” we were told. When he did show, it was late. Nevertheless, as he made his entry, he smiled charmingly and, thereafter, it was as if all was well again, and the room settled in a way that was surprising.
Rees-Mogg spoke for maybe 20 minutes. He said nothing earth-shattering or unexpected. In fact I remember little of it. But I remember him. The way he dealt with questions, the manner in which the audience was addressed, the soft undulations of his speech, the ease he put us at, the better we felt for having heard his bon mots—or so it seemed. Of course, I was under no illusion. Here was a consummate politician; that much I had expected. There was another sense of the man though, more surprising still. It was one of steely determination, a force of personality, if one veiled in a gentle, very English self-deprecating humor with, of course, that charming smile.
As I say, I wouldn’t underestimate Jacob Rees-Mogg.