politics

Rise of an English Gentleman Threatens the Hardest of Brexits

He holds no ministerial post, but Jacob Rees-Mogg holds more and more sway when it comes to Europe.
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It was appropriate that Jacob Rees-Mogg should have found himself in the middle of another fight. The British Conservative lawmaker has been in the middle of all the important fights lately.

Opponents and supporters of the poster-boy for a quick and decisive British divorce from the European Union jostled outside an event in the English city of Bristol, where Rees-Mogg was due to speak on Friday evening. But far more important are the less physical tussles he’s thrust himself into.

Rees-Mogg, 48, has emerged as the governing Tory party’s leading voice against any watering down of Brexit and is now talked of seriously as a potential replacement for Theresa May as prime minister.

Rees-Mogg at the Conservative Party annual conference last year.
Photographer: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

He’s questioned the credibility of everyone from Bank of England central bankers to government researchers warning of the consequences. Last year, he met with Steve Bannon, the former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, to discuss campaign techniques.

“Conservatives love him,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, who hosted a discussion with Rees-Mogg on Feb. 1. The event was so oversubscribed that they had to relay it to a second lecture theater. “If he made it through the early rounds of a leadership contest” -- when Tory lawmakers winnow down the candidates to a final pair -- “I think he’d win.”

QuicktakeBritain’s Brexit Trade Options

Rees-Mogg offers undiluted Conservatism. A former banker and founder of an asset management company, he advocates low taxes. He’s also personally opposed to abortion and gay marriage. But it is on Europe that his views matter most, and he wants the hardest kind of Brexit that so many businesses fear.

He opposes any transitional departure, or any agreement that keeps Britain tied to the EU and its rules. He sees the opportunities for Britain in seeking deals with other countries and blocs on World Trade Organisation terms.

English Caricature

Tall, thin, and always turned out in a pin-striped double-breasted suit, the old Etonian seems a caricature of an English gentleman. He never uses one syllable where five will do, and is happy to quote Latin or even, in one recent speech, Aramaic. Indeed his early appearances in public life were as an oddity, often the butt of others’ jokes.

Unlike other key figures in the Brexit debate, Rees-Mogg’s only formal role beyond member of Parliament is as chairman of the European Research Group, an informal club of Euroskeptic Tories. Paradoxically, it’s Rees-Mogg’s status outside government that makes him so important.

Brexit supporters in the government, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, are bound by collective responsibility rules. Rees-Mogg is free to lay into the government when it looks like it might be softening its line.

Last week, he attacked Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond over reports that Treasury analysis showed Brexit would damage the economy. He accused officials of “fiddling the figures” to make leaving the EU look bad. The union that represents civil servants responded by condemning “unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.”

The obvious aim of such interventions is to discourage the voices in cabinet calling for a softer Brexit. Then they serve as a threat to May. 

The danger is that May’s front-bench team is “in hock to 35 hard ideological Brexiteers,” former Business Minister Anna Soubry, an ardent pro-European, said late Monday in a BBC TV interview.

“It’s time Theresa May stood up to them and slung ’em out,” said Soubry. “We just simply cannot go on like this any longer. Something is going to have to give, because if it doesn’t, not only do we get Jacob Rees-Mogg as our prime minister, we get a devastating hard Brexit which will cause huge damage to our economy for generations to come, and I’m not prepared to sit back any longer and put up with this nonsense.”

‘Bad Feeling’

The membership of the European Research Group isn’t disclosed, but there are more than 30 -- enough to cost May a vote in parliament, and more than half the number needed to trigger a challenge to her leadership if they feel they are being cheated of the Brexit they want.

“There is lots of bad feeling in the Tory Party at the moment,” said Paul Whiteley, professor of government at Essex University. “It is like World War I -- all the conditions are in place, but you need an assassination to set it off.”

In this febrile atmosphere, where every faction is watching every other faction to see who will blink first, Rees-Mogg has uses beyond the obvious.

Theresa May
Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

May’s position is so fragile that her party knows it could be selecting a new leader at any moment. Should that come soon, either Johnson or Gove might hope to win the votes of Rees-Mogg and his group. His noisy presence is a reminder to them that Euroskeptics have alternative options if they feel Johnson and Gove aren’t standing up for them.

Even May herself has a use for Rees-Mogg. One minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, observed that it was helpful for May in her discussions with the EU to have someone difficult standing behind her. If her fellow leaders don’t give her a good deal, they might find themselves dealing with him.

Political Product

Like Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Rees-Mogg is best understood as a response to what came before. For two decades, British politicians sought to capture the center ground of politics, with first Tony Blair and then David Cameron appealing to the electorate by rejecting extreme positions in favor of pragmatism.

If it worked with voters, it frustrated activists who wanted a stronger, simpler message, and more so when now faced with Britain’s biggest policy quandary for decades.

Rees-Mogg’s rejection of complexity means that, like Corbyn, he can avoid difficult questions. Asked how he would solve the apparently intractable issue of the U.K.’s land border with Ireland, he said it was straightforward: the U.K. would simply refuse to put a border up. If the Irish wanted to, that would be a matter for them, he said.

Such responses are dismissed out of hand. “No government is okay with having a border that’s just open when they’ve got no arrangement with the people on the other side,” said Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Centre for European Reform.

But as Brexit continues to polarize British politics, Rees-Mogg’s approach continues to gain ground in key circles. 

He never quite rules out running for the leadership. The question people have been asking about him since he was pictured, aged 12, reading the Financial Times with his teddy bear remains: How far will he go?

An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Whiteley in the 16th paragraph.

— With assistance by Alex Morales

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