Jacob Rees-Mogg: "A new Speaker will be a real chance for a culture change in Parliament"
From the role of the Speaker to the power of the House of Lords, Jacob Rees-Mogg believes the Brexit debate has exposed the need for reform to the our parliamentary system. The leader of the Commons talks to Kevin Schofield
“You don’t want a discussion on the 1832 Reform Bill, do you?” asks Jacob Rees-Mogg in what could well be the most Jacob Rees-Mogg line he has ever uttered in an interview.
We are discussing the House of Lords, and whether it needs to be reformed again, just as the electoral system was in the 19th century.
Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons and a keen observer of parliamentary history and conventions, believes that if it is not careful, the calls for radical changes to the way the upper chamber operates will eventually become deafening. His message to peers is simple: reform yourselves before others do it for you.
He is especially vexed by the Lords’ behaviour over Brexit – specifically its decision to hastily pass contentious bills which have challenged the Government’s attempts to take the UK out of the EU.
Unsurprisingly, he delivers a history lesson to make his point. “The House of Lords has become so obsessed by Brexit that it has overturned its normal conventions,” Rees-Mogg says.
“What does the House of Lords do? It scrutinises and it allows tempers and passions to cool. We’ve always passed emergency legislation with consensus. If the House of Lords legislates urgently for matters which have gone through the House of Commons by one vote, it isn’t fulfilling its role and therefore you have to look at how it can fulfil its role. This would be a matter for the House of Lords but should they look at their standing orders or should there be more thoroughgoing reform?
“If we take it beyond Brexit, from about 1832 to 1999, the Conservatives invariably had a majority in the House of Lords. In the 1880s and 1890s and up until 1911, this majority was sometimes abused and this led to a major reform.”
“From about 1911 onwards, the House of Lords – with a Tory majority and with the Salisbury-Addison Convention – realised that if it was to survive it had to behave very well and couldn’t use its majority to vote down every bit of Labour legislation. Up until 2015, there was a basic majority for what the Labour government and then the coalition wanted to do. From 2015 you had for the first time in modern history a Conservative government with a majority in the House of Commons and with a majority against it in the House of Lords. But the House of Lords has acted like the House of Lords in 1880 and 1890, using its majority to block anything it feels like.”
Rees-Mogg is queasy at the prospect of legislative reform of the House of Lords, and insists he is not an advocate for major reforms such as an elected upper chamber or changes to the way peers are appointed to ensure it better reflects the make-up of the Commons.
But he adds: “The Lords needs to settle in the way it settled after 1911 and the question is does that happen naturally or does the pressure for reform become very strong because they simply block any Conservative government because of their anti-Conservative majority?
“I strongly believe in the principle that each House regulates its own business and I think that’s a much better system than legislative reform solutions.”
After nine years on the backbenches, happily “throwing rocks into the pond” of politics, Rees-Mogg was rewarded in July for his support of Boris Johnson by being appointed to his first Cabinet as Leader of the House of Commons.
“It’s a very interesting change,” he says. “I’m very lucky because I have changed to a ministerial role behind a leader of the party and Prime Minister in whom I have enormous confidence. I’m doing a ministerial role with great enthusiasm for the inevitable constraints. Being constrained for somebody you admire and are fully behind is really easy.”
His elevation has come at a remarkable time, not just because of the political forces unleashed by Brexit, but because a major change is coming to Parliament, namely the election next month of a new Speaker for the first time in a decade.
Rees-Mogg has been a great defender of John Bercow, although that relationship has become strained since the 2016 referendum.
The Speaker’s determination to make life as difficult as possible for the Government has led to accusations from Brexiteers of pro-Remain sympathies. Rees-Mogg is far too polite to go there, but he does believe that the changing of the guard presents the perfect opportunity to define the Speaker’s role more clearly.
“All the Speaker candidates seem to be talking about clarification of what they can and can’t do,” he points out. “They want to know what is within the bounds and what is not. It’s very important that there is certainty so that people know this is what is accepted and this is what Erskine May means.
“My role would be to support the new Speaker in coming to a consensus on what the Speaker’s discretion should be. The Speaker is a very powerful umpire, but it is not for the Speaker to determine one way or another which way things are going. But for the rules to be applied, the Speaker needs to know what those rules are.”
On Bercow’s time in the chair, Rees-Mogg says: “I think a good assessment of the Speaker will not be come to in the short term because it’s too heated. I hope that when his biography is written it will be very balanced on the many things he’s got right and the things he has not got right and does not ignore the former because the latter is more exciting to talk about.”
He does, however, take what appears to be a thinly-veiled swipe at the Speaker while discussing his determination to tackle bullying in the Commons.
Bercow has faced accusations of bullying – which he strongly denies – and had a famously difficult relationship with Rees-Mogg’s predecessor, Andrea Leadsom, over the House’s attempts to get to grips with the issue.
“There’s always more to do,” Rees-Mogg says. “I think the Speaker elections are important because in the hustings this is an issue they are all focussing on, and my role will be very much to support them in what they are trying to do to ensure that the Cox recommendations are implemented effectively, that the independent complaints and grievance system works effectively.
“Ultimately, the Speaker sets the tone and culture of the House of Commons. And so, with a new Speaker it will be a real opportunity to develop and evolve the culture.
“It’s like drink driving. The reason people don’t drink drive any more isn’t so much they’re worried that there’s a policeman round the corner with a breathalyser to catch them, it’s because society no longer thinks it is clever, funny or normal. There’s a peer pressure not to drink and drive and we need exactly the same in the House of Commons – a peer pressure to treat people properly.”
Asked if he believes Bercow has not done enough to solve the problem, he says: “I don’t want to criticise the Speaker on this, but I think a new Speaker provides an opportunity to do things differently. The Speaker has done significant work and the complaints and grievance procedure has come in under his leadership, but things often need a fresh wind.”
Online bullying, especially the targeting of female and minority MPs, is another area where the Commons Leader believes action is long overdue.
“I think very highly of [Labour MP] Jess Phillips, who is very able and an incredibly decent person, and the abuse she gets is unbelievable,” he says. And I think the social media companies have a responsibility to police their own sites better.
“They have fantastically capable search engines. You put the most obscure fact into Google and it works out what it is you’re trying to find. I’d have thought they could have filters and systems that prevented death threats and threats of violence before they’re posted rather than after the event.”
He twice mentions the “Surrender Act” in our discussion, the dismissive term used by Brexiteers – including Boris Johnson – to describe the cross-party bill forcing the Prime Minister to seek a three-month extension to Article 50 if he fails to secure a deal.
That phrase has used as an example of the toxic nature of the current political debate, giving cover to those who want to paint MPs opposed to Brexit as traitors to their country. Does Rees-Mogg now feel a responsibility to help defuse the situation by dialling down the rhetoric?
He says: “You’ve got to be very careful about this not to discourage strong political debate. We have an adversarial system, people have to be able to use whatever phraseology they can to put their view across as strongly as possible. That’s perfectly reasonable, completely proper and has always happened.
“What is wrong is the abuse that particularly female and minority MPs get on Twitter and threats of violence. John McDonnell calling for Esther McVey to be lynched was deeply wrong and disgraceful. I know he says he was quoting but that’s a very weak defence. When you quote someone you’re normally endorsing it. You should never be promoting, advocating or sympathising with violence.
“Referring to the Poll Tax, or the Bedroom Tax or the Surrender Bill are the flotsam and jetsam of political life, which we all use the emphasise our points.”
He insists that the current political climate in now more heated than in the 1980s, pointing out that passions ran just as high during miners’ strike.
“I think one of the reassuring things about our country and our political system is that we focus our debate and our disagreement on the chamber of the Commons and we do it forcibly but within certain rules,” Rees-Mogg says. “We don’t go onto the streets, and that, I think, is the right way to do it.
“Does the temperature sometimes get quite high? Yes it does. But sit in for 10 minutes after Prime Ministers Questions, where you have a lot of sound and fury and confected anger, and you then move on to a Private Members Bill and the whole temperature has changed completely and it will be like that for the rest of the day. It waxes and wanes and it’s easy to over-react about one debate.”
Rees-Mogg refuses to speculate on when the general election may come, but hopes that when it does, the Tories will again pledge to scrap the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
“It’s a constitutional monstrosity because our system doesn’t work when the executive and the legislature are not of the same broad view,” he insists. “It doesn’t mean governments can’t lose votes, but they can lose votes negatively to stop them doing things. Forcing governments to do things they don’t want to do but pretending you’ve got confidence in the government doesn’t make sense.
“So we’re slightly trapped, with the Labour party saying it wants an election and then not voting for one, and the government keen to have an election because you need a government with a workable majority in the House of Commons, otherwise we’re in gridlock. We haven’t got the systems to make gridlock operate.”
These may be unusual political times, but Rees-Mogg has faith that Parliament – with a bit of minor tweaking – can survive and thrive in the years ahead.
REES-MOGG ON ... LOUNGING ON THE FRONTBENCH
"I was just sitting comfortably and I always sat like that on the backbenches and nobody minded. I had an email sent to me that said that when the chamber was rebuilt after the war, Churchill arranged for the table to be closer to the benches because historically ministers sat with their feet on the table, clearly this has gone out of fashion. Clearly, being old fashioned is not quite as wise as it might be. One doesn’t want to be distracted by trivialities."
REES-MOGG ON ... THE SUPREME COURT
"The Government position is that it respects the judges but thinks the decision was wrong and that is very much my position. I think we’ve got fantastic judges but they made a mistake and created an uncertainty in our constitutional arrangements where there was previously certainty."
REES-MOGG ON ... AMBER RUDD'S SEXISM CLAIMS
"Most of the members of the ERG, and some of them served her, thought that Margaret Thatcher was the greatest leader this country has had post-war and would have backed her to the hilt because they trusted her and thought she had the country’s interests at heart. I think Amber makes a mistake in crying sexism over political disagreement. Is the fact that I don’t agree with Jeremy Corbyn on almost anything make me anti-men?"
REES-MOGG ON ... OPPOSING SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
"That’s a decision that’s been taken and is not going to be reversed. There’s not going to be a proposal to bring back capital punishment and I wouldn’t support it if there were because I’m in favour of life. But these things quite rightly are matters of conscience and not bound by party political considerations and I think that’s important."