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ANALYSIS: Why Jacob Rees-Mogg's latest outburst shows he is getting above his station

Sebastian Whale | PoliticsHome

4 min read Partner content

The referendum outcome was the endorsement of many things, depending on who you talk to.

It was a clear call to leave the single market and customs union, those of a more hardline Brexit disposition argue. Remainers, of course, put forward the reverse contention.

But one thing I certainly don’t remember being on the ballot box on 23 June, 2016, was that Jacob Rees-Mogg would end up playing a key role in national political discourse.

By dint of personality, the backbencher has somehow made the journey carved out for him by Boris Johnson from loveable toff to would-be leader of the Conservative party. He has achieved this status on the back of a cult following, a neat ability to take a phrase and turn it, and a ‘no media is bad media’ approach to PR.

It was his election to chair the European Research Group (ERG) in January that really propelled Rees-Mogg to a position of apparent authority, gained without the electorate outside of his North East Somerset having too much to say about it.

The ERG has been going for 25 years and is thought to contain around 60 members of the parliamentary Conservative party, including ministers and MPs on both sides of the EU debate. As its chair, Rees-Mogg has launched all manner of warnings about the direction of travel on Brexit.

In his latest salvo for the Daily Telegraph, he claims that a host of Conservatives would vote against the final withdrawal agreement in the autumn if the UK does not make a clean break from the EU. It is a move which could bring down the Government.

“The Prime Minister must stick to her righteous cause and deliver what she has said she would, she must use her undoubted grace to persevere,” he writes.

There is something about Rees-Mogg’s promotion to the mainstream that jars. A stickler for procedure and democracy, his influence bears no relation to his position. He has never held ministerial office. He has never chaired a select committee. To all intents and purposes, he is simply a backbench Tory MP who once said the longest ever word in the Commons. He doesn’t even have that accolade anymore – a Remainer does. I imagine that keeps him up at night.

It’s a path well-trodden for an outsider to get above their station. Nigel Farage has arguably been the most influential figure on politics in the past twenty years and yet tried and failed seven times during that period to enter parliament. At least Rees-Mogg achieved that.

The reaction to today’s intervention indicates that many in his own party, too, are getting a bit Mogged down. FCO ministers Sir Alan Duncan and Alistair Burt called on him to pack it in and get behind the PM. Nicholas Soames told him to “shut up”.

What is interesting to consider though is that Rees-Mogg did not play a significant role in the referendum. If anything, he was a bit-part player. His heightened status did not come as a by-product of a high-profile performance in the campaign.

In many ways, he has now usurped those who did take a leading role two years ago. The restrictions of office mean that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove must - by and large - keep their own counsel on Brexit these days, while Nigel Farage seems more interested in ingratiating himself with Donald Trump than commentating on the UK departing from the EU.

The big beasts of Leave have left a vacuum which has been gleefully filled by Rees-Mogg.

The official word from Downing Street, in response to the old Etonian backbencher, is that the Prime Minister's sole focus is "on delivering the will of the British people".

But now is the time for Theresa May to show some gumption in the face of the Rees-Mogg's latest blackmail threat.

He is not accountable to the British public beyond his own constituents. His influence should be limited, constrained and placed firmly in perspective. For years, Tory leaders have failed to do this with members of the party's eurosceptic wing and paid the consequences. Instead, they have been hobbled by lingering threats of rebellion. 

Catering government policy to the whims and wishes of Jacob Rees-Mogg is not a great position for a Prime Minister to find themselves in. No matter how enigmatic he may be.


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