Jacob Rees-Mogg: Brexit weakens the case for Scottish nationalism
Jacob Rees-Mogg and his youngest son, Sixtus, open a copy of Erskine May in Rees-Mogg's Commons Office [Credit: Baldo Sciacca]
He has been at the heart of the Brexit drama from day one. With the end in sight, the Leader of the House of Commons talks to Georgina Bailey about his hopes for an independent United Kingdom, why the Hybrid Parliament won't return, and Christmas at the Rees-Moggs.
So, what would Jacob Rees-Mogg like for Christmas?
The MP for North East Somerset says he hasn’t asked for anything particular this year, although he usually gets lots of interesting books. However, his favourite present is the vial of anointing oil from Queen Victoria’s coronation, given to him by his father when he was about 15.
“I’m afraid my friends didn't think this was as exciting as I did. But I was very thrilled,” he says.
And does he have a favourite Christmas film?
“Any old James Bond will do.”
Are James Bond movies Christmas films?
“They normally have one on over Christmas,” he contends. Roger Moore is his favourite.
I ask if he’s ever been tempted to recreate the Hugh Grant dancing around No 10 scene from Love Actually, but it turns out he’s never seen it. Would I recommend it? he asks. Definitely, I respond.
“I’ll look into that carefully. We’ll set up a committee of inquiry.”
We are talking over Zoom on the day when a trade deal between the UK and the EU has felt closer than ever before. The UK has just taken its threat to breach the Withdrawal Agreement off the table, and tomorrow Boris Johnson will travel to Brussels for a crucial dinner meeting with European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen.
However, Rees-Mogg seems more reserved than usual – slightly downcast, even. Is this how the staunch Brexiteer and former chair of the European Research Group had envisaged the endgame of Brexit?
“It’s what David Davis always forecast, interestingly. When he was Brexit secretary, he said everything would happen in the last few weeks, if not the last few days; that’s when things get agreed,” Rees-Mogg says. “It’s how the EU very often operates.”
After being a thorn in Theresa May’s side over Brexit, Rees-Mogg has, for the last 17 months, served in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet as Leader of the Commons.
“I don’t want to be disobliging about Theresa May, I think she did her best to serve the country, and did her best to try and negotiate a Brexit deal without a majority, and without being a Brexiteer.”
The fundamental difference now, he says, is “the starting point for Boris Johnson is that Brexit is a good thing for the country, and opens up huge opportunities for us. Whereas I think Theresa May was trying to do damage limitation.”
It’s fascinating that the rise in support for the SNP correlates very strongly with the increase in powers for the European Union
Despite ongoing arguments between the devolved administrations of the UK and Westminster over our exit from the EU, Rees-Mogg insists that “Brexit actually strengthens the United Kingdom, because it makes it more obvious why the United Kingdom works”.
Clashes between the SNP and Rees-Mogg are very much a staple of the weekly Business Questions he leads in the Commons. It’s interesting therefore, that in response to my question about the Union, he focuses on Scotland, giving the examples of fishing and cutting out the need to go to Brussels for agreement on any change to Scottish agricultural plans. “We can work together as the United Kingdom rather than having decisions coming from outside,” he says.
“It’s fascinating that the rise in support for the SNP correlates very strongly with the increase in powers for the European Union,” he adds.
What does he mean by that?
“Support for the SNP has increased going all the way back to 1972. So as we became more deeply entrenched in the European Union, support for the SNP rose, because Europe had within the EU a number of countries of a similar population size, many of whom were in receipt of subsidies from the European Union – frankly a bit of a boondoggle, if that’s what you wanted.
“Whereas now what you see is the real value of the United Kingdom, the strength of the United Kingdom. You’ve seen particularly during the Covid pandemic, with the £8.2bn of UK taxpayers’ money available for Scotland, which wouldn’t have been there had Scotland been an independent nation within the EU.
“So I think the real strength of the Union has become increasingly apparent. And the supposed advantages of being in the EU just aren’t there. Ireland is now a net contributor to the EU budget. You’ve got to have the euro. A new country entering would have to be a member of Schengen. So I think since we’ve left the European Union, since the vote for Brexit, actually the United Kingdom looks stronger, and the European Union a less attractive proposition.”
But how does he square that with the opinion polls showing increasing support for independence in Scotland?
“Opinion polls are a snapshot of what people are saying at a particular time and not always enormously accurate. If they were accurate, I’m not sure we’d have a Conservative majority of 80 at the moment. So I think one has to be cautious about one’s interpretation of opinion polls. And the one poll they had in 2014 showed a comfortable majority for remaining in the United Kingdom, which the SNP at the time said was the decision for a generation.”
We return to the topic of the SNP later, when I ask him about a recent row over a comment he made in the Commons disparaging the party’s “Blairite constitutional blunders”.
He insists that, although he thinks the SNP is “running Scotland’s affairs hopelessly”, he wasn’t talking about devolution but instead Blair’s 2003 attempt to abolish the position of Lord Chancellor, which he dubs as “chaotic” and “ill-thought through”.
He claims that “more people voted to leave the European Union in Scotland then voted for the SNP,” which is, at least, true of the party’s 2016 vote total, if not 2019. “We should be pleased about that.”
Another defining row for Rees-Mogg in 2020 has been to what extent the Commons should be operating virtually during the pandemic. Known for being a staunch traditionalist, Rees-Mogg came under attack in June for ending the hybrid proceedings which had been hastily set up over Easter to create parity between MPs allowed in the socially distanced Chamber and everyone else who dialled in virtually.
Since the summer, while members who are not physically in Parliament have been able to vote via proxy and take part in question times and ministerial statements, they have been unable to contribute to debates or any business in Westminster Hall – something that critics say has created two tiers of MPs.
The row picked up media attention when Conservative MP Tracey Crouch was excluded from taking part in a Westminster Hall debate on cancer services due to the fact that she herself is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
While Rees-Mogg says he is “extremely sympathetic” to MPs who are clinically extremely vulnerable, he is unwilling to go back to a fully hybrid system, pointing to the government advice to the rest of the country.
I think there’s a distinction between ‘can an individual MP do the job of an individual MP from home?’ Yes. And ‘can Parliament work if MPs are at home?’ Ultimately, no
He recently introduced a motion to enable those in the clinically extremely vulnerable category to take part in debates, but it was talked out by critics – including from the House of Commons Procedure Committee – who said that it not only violated MPs’ privacy by asking them to declare health conditions, but that it still excluded those who were vulnerable for other reasons, or who lived with someone who is in the clinically extremely vulnerable category.
Rees-Mogg explains the distinction: “If your work requires you to go in, you should go in unless you yourself are extremely clinically vulnerable. That’s the advice we’re giving to our constituents. I think it’s very difficult to give different advice to MPs from the advice we’re giving to our constituents.
“Parliament doesn’t work if [MPs are] all at home. So I think there’s a distinction between ‘can an individual MP do the job of an individual MP from home?’ Yes. And ‘can Parliament work if MPs are at home?’ Ultimately, no.”
He points to the need for line-by-line bill scrutiny that happens in committee stages, which couldn’t take place when Parliament was meeting in a hybrid manner – nothing, he says, could get beyond second reading.
But roughly a quarter of all MPs now are not coming in and the work is still getting done, I point out. Why can’t they have full debating rights, if they’re already staying away and Parliament is still functioning?
“Because you need a number of people to be coming in. And you’ve got to be fair to the three quarters who are coming. And that’s why it’s sensible to make exception for the extremely clinically vulnerable who are being advised by the government itself not to come in. And the people in other circumstances aren’t being specifically advised not to come in. And the SNP, for example, just doesn’t want to come. Some, not all of them,” he corrects himself.
“All reasonable steps have been made to make the House of Parliament a Covid-secure working environment. There should be no special treatment for MPs against the other people working in Parliament to make Parliament function.”
Another priority for Rees-Mogg is continuing to improve the workplace culture in Parliament following the 2017 bullying and harassment scandal.
“It’s important that there is a better system and the complaints are dealt with more effectively. The idea that anyone has an entitlement to behave in this way is, I think, fundamentally false,” he says.
The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) is now going through its 18-month review (which has been slightly delayed by Covid), something he hopes will speed up the complaints process for all parties and build confidence in the system.
While he cannot commit to regular 18-month reviews, he does say that the whole system will be kept under ongoing review, with the potential for surveys of opinion of the scheme’s competence. “If things don’t seem to be working, if problems seem to be arising, that’s the point at which you would have another review,” he explains.
He puts part of the teething problems so far down to the initial investigators appointed, and the time taken to handover to “better quality investigators”.
“The ICGS will be known to work when there are people on the Estate who have had experience of it and say to their friends and colleagues, this is a system you can use because I know it works. And that will happen when people get their responses reasonably quickly.”
Given the season, we conclude our conversation with a quick chat about Christmas in the Rees-Mogg household.
“I’ve got six children so the house is strewn with presents – vast piles of packages for the children and lots of toys emerge. Usually a certain amount of church-going, though we’ll have to see how easy that’s going to be this year with the restrictions and the lack of seats that there will be. And a sort of generally jolly time,” he says laughing. “I’m very lucky, having six children makes Christmas very exciting. They get so full of expectation and joy in the run-up.”
Finally, does he have a New Year’s wish or hope for 2021?
“Ah, for an independent United Kingdom! I think that’s really exciting. We will at last be seeing a UK free of control from the European Union and making our own decisions.
“And we will have no one to blame but ourselves; you know, it will be up to us. And I think that is really exciting, because I think we will have the opportunity to succeed mightily.”
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