Jacob Rees-Mogg: "The office of Prime Minister is done as a duty, not as a bit of a laugh"
Jacob Rees-Mogg was catapulted from obscure backbencher to potential prime minister as Moggmentum swept across the country. In parliament for nearly eight years with no ministerial experience to speak of, the Conservative MP insists he is comfortable being one of the leading bastions of Brexit on the green benches. But is there really a limit to his ambitions? He talks to Kevin Schofield.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is a man in demand. Being appointed chairman of the European Research Group, the backbench Tory pro-Brexit campaigning organisation, has seen him become the go-to man for instant reaction on the latest development in the EU negotiations.
And when he speaks, Downing Street listens. During our interview in his small office tucked away in the bowels of parliament, Rees-Mogg does not demur when I suggest that he has regular meetings with Theresa May. Appearances on TV and radio are commonplace, while there is also the Moggcast, a fortnightly podcast he does for the ConservativeHome website in which he opines on the various political issues of the day. Inconspicuous he is not.
Westminster being as it is, the hive mind has already decreed that the North East Somerset MP is on manoeuvres with the ultimate ambition of succeeding Theresa May as party leader and Prime Minister.
And while some point to the fact that he has never held a frontbench role during his eight years as an MP, others make the equally-pertinent observation that neither had Jeremy Corbyn before becoming leader of the Labour party in 2015.
Rees-Mogg himself, however, insists that the notion he will follow Theresa May in 10 Downing Street “is not a serious suggestion”.
He says: “I’m a backbench MP. Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party from opposition. If you look at Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair and David Cameron – the three most recent figures to become leader without having held office – they have all done it from opposition.
“Parties of government do not go for a backbencher, they go for a minister. It’s all jolly and amusing speculation, but people should save their money and not go down to the bookmakers and expect to make money on me.”
Asked if he would like to be leader, he neatly sidesteps the question: “I don’t think ‘like’ is the right terminology. The office of Prime Minister is done as a duty, not as a bit of a laugh. One of the reasons people admire Theresa May is that she is a very dutiful person and serves because it’s her duty. She does it very properly and with a lot of popularity.”
He insists he has never even been offered a ministerial job, shutting off another possible avenue to Downing Street. “Being a backbencher and able to hold the government to account is a very proper role for a member of Parliament,” he insists.
Whether he likes it or not, though, the conventional wisdom is that, should he decide to run in a future contest, Rees-Mogg would be clear favourite if he gained enough nominations from MPs to be in the final run-off, when Conservative party members would decide the winner.
It is therefore unsurprising that people want to know some more about the political philosophy of someone who could conceivably be leading the nation before the next general election.
On the economy, he describes himself as a “fiscal realist” and insists Britain must tackle its colossal national debt.
That said, he believes that the National Health Service desperately needs an urgent injection of public money. Unsurprisingly, he believes the “Brexit dividend” – the amount proponents of leaving the EU will free up for the Exchequer – will guarantee an additional £10bn, on top of the same amount which has already been announced by Jeremy Hunt. “There was an implied promise to do that on the side of a bus,” he points out. “It needs the money and the government needs to find it.”
However, he rejects suggestions supposedly being kicked around by the Cabinet for a special hypothecated tax, the proceeds from which could only be spent on the health service.
Rees-Mogg says: “No, hypothecated tax would be a disaster. Hypothecated taxes never work because they always provide the wrong amount of money. You can’t trust governments to stick to the hypothecation. You risk ending up with too little money and having to get the rest from general taxation, or you end up getting too much and how do you spend it?”
On taxation, he says “Laffer works” and that “lower rates yield better results”. “In 1979 the top one per cent of taxpayers at an 83/98p rate paid six per cent of all income tax revenues,” he explains. “Now, with the 45p rate, it’s 27% of all income tax revenues. Lower rates benefit the Exchequer as well as the taxpayer.”
We are speaking just after Theresa May told MPs it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yuria in Salsbury. So how would Rees-Mogg deal with the threat posed by the Putin regime?
“The government has to be robust,” he says. “Russia has put itself outside the norms of international behaviour and this is not the first time it’s done it. It’s done it in murdering people outside its own territory, but also in backing military force in another sovereign country in the Crimea and Ukraine and Georgia.
“So, you’ve got a pattern of behaviour with Russia that puts it outside the global diplomatic order and international law and you have a choice in these circumstances; either you accept that countries will behave in this way and let them get away with it, or you respond vigorously. And in my view, we must respond vigorously and make it quite clear to Russia that behaviour in this way will not be tolerated meekly by the western world.
“What does that mean? First of all, just expelling a few diplomats isn’t enough. It needs to be tougher action than that. We need to look at hitting Russia financially. The Russians have a lot of assets in London and some of the Russians with assets are linked to Putin. If you can establish a trail and show it is his money then you should go after that and freeze his assets.”
Militarily, Rees-Mogg says, Britain could also be doing much more than currently to demonstrate to the Kremlin that it will not be cowed.
“There is a rotating system of troops under Nato, where the British send forces to the Baltic. I think we should look at having a permanent establishment there to make it absolutely clear to Putin that the Nato guarantee is inviolable and the Baltic states will be protected and that we will view any further cyber-attacks as requiring a response in kind. You have to stand up to bullies - Russia is a bully.”
He is scathing, however, about Boris Johnson’s suggestion that Britain – more specifically, England – should not send dignitaries to this summer’s World Cup in Russia as a way of showing the Government’s displeasure.
“To me it seems to be an entirely inadequate response,” Rees-Mogg says. “Boris Johnson was indicating an early stage view, before it was established beyond a reasonable doubt of Russian involvement. In 1980 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the UK and US did a semi-boycott of the Olympics, it wasn’t a very successful response.”
Someone whose record on standing up to Putin could never be described as robust is Donald Trump, who Rees-Mogg describes as “an interesting figure”. He insists that Britain must maintain close links with the USA regardless of who occupies the White House, and notes approvingly Trump’s ability to get radical changes to the American tax system through Congress. He also welcomes the president’s proposed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, an approach which he said is better than “the appeasement that we had from Obama”.
Rees-Mogg has come in for criticism for meeting former senior White House adviser Steve Bannon – who only last week said being described as a racist was “a badge of honour” – mainly to discuss foreign policy. He has no regrets though.
He says: “He’s said all sorts of peculiar things I don’t identify my views with his. He’s much more pro-Russian than I am - I think Russia is a menace. As a politician you inevitably meet other politicians from western democracies and that doesn’t mean an endorsement of their views.”
However, Rees-Mogg insists he has “no plans” to meet Bannon again.
Inevitably, our conversation returns to Brexit, and suggestions by some that the ERG is a party within a party.
“I don’t think that’s accurate,” Rees-Mogg says. “We’re very supportive of the Prime Minister and the various speeches the Prime Minister has made, and the policy outlined in the manifesto. We’re entirely in line with orthodox Conservative policy and the Prime Minister’s statements and it is important that MPs vocally support their leader when not everybody does. You can’t allow the other side to occupy the field all to themselves.”
Rees-Mogg says the group simply “exists to carry out research for its contributing members to help them with their parliamentary work”.
Its reluctance to publish the list of its members stems, he says, from the fact that it doesn’t really have any, only contributors who pay for its services. “Beyond the subscribing members there are supporters interested in discussing the European issue and we have issues to run through with them, get people’s thoughts and make them clear to the government.”
What does he say to the suggestion, in a column by Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn this week, that a well-known Brexiteer in the Cabinet is now of the belief that Britain should be willing to pay up to £5bn a year to the EU after Brexit to secure preferential access to the single market?
“£5bn sounds a very large amount of money to me,” he replies. “There are schemes we could be involved with – Europol and Erasmus – and I would have thought these would be in the hundreds of millions rather than the billions. I think the government has to deliver on the Brexit dividend and £5bn would make it hard for the government to do that.”
He adds: “I think there is a recognition that every side has to make some compromises, but when we’ve left we need to be an independent sovereign nation free to set our own rules and regulations and what we do with the EU must be by voluntary co-operation rather than because we are part of their legal and political order.”
The future of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland remains the main obstacle to agreeing the terms of a transition deal at next week’s EU Council summit in Brussels.
Theresa May has already made clear that the EU’s backstop suggestion that Northern Ireland remains in the Customs Union as a way of avoiding a hard border is unacceptable to her, and Rees-Mogg unsurprisingly concurs.
He is less enamoured with her position, set out in her Mansion House speech, that Britain must work with the EU to solve the problem. “I think the Prime Minister was being generous to the European Union in that context,” he says.
“She wants to have friendly relations in the negotiations, but it’s a question of nuance and I think they’re the stick in the muds in this and have come up with a solution that is wholly impossible for the United Kingdom to accept, that we should take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.
“Why don’t we suggest to them that the Republic of Ireland comes out of the single market and customs union and accepts our regulations? It’s an equally logical suggestion.”
Rees-Mogg also has no truck with those, notably Tony Blair and John Major, who have warned that a hard border on the island of Ireland could give paramilitaries the excuse to pick up their weapons again.
He says: “I think it’s a politically unappealing and cynical approach to suggest that violence may be a consequence of not doing what the pro-Europeans want, and they should think whether that is a wise approach to take. Once you start proposing that violence may be a consequence of something, you’re almost encouraging violence. So, people making that argument should think very carefully about the wisdom of that argument.”
As a devout Roman Catholic, I wonder if Rees-Mogg ever prays that Brexit will turn out as he hopes. But he says: “I don’t confuse my religious faith with my expectations for Brexit and economic activity. I don’t think prayer is a solution to day-to-day political issues.”
That said, his faith helps inform his moral outlook and, in turn, his political convictions.
“In terms of my moral outlook, I’d say there is one very important factor about being Catholic and that is true of people in other religions as well, which is the Catholic teaching of the equal importance of every one of God’s people.
“Every soul is of equal value and I think that is a very good starting point for democratic life. That then underpins how you view the world, and that is important.”
As someone often used to being out with the political mainstream, Rees-Mogg offers the unfashionable view for a Tory MP that Theresa May will definitely lead the party into the next general election.
“Her position is not under threat,” he says. “She might campaign differently. I think her advisers would not hide her away as much. I think the more people see of Theresa May, the more they like her - someone steady, sensible and dutiful. At the last election she was hidden away by her advisers and that was a great mistake.”
But he will not go so far as to predict a better performance next time round. “My political forecasts have been wrong so I wouldn’t take any notice of anything I forecast. I thought we’d win comfortably right up until two minutes to 10 on election night.”
At a time of political turmoil, making any predictions is a dangerous business. It is safe to say, however, that Jacob Rees-Mogg will play a significant role in the future of the Conservative party come what may.