If Jacob Rees-Mogg’s time is coming, then he has spent a long time in preparation.
A month of almost continuous public appearances for the 48-year-old hard Brexit, socially illiberal Tory, which have seen him involved in a fracas in Bristol, take on David Davis head-to-head in the Commons and even photobomb a petition drop at No 10, are merely his latest manoeuvres after four decades in the public eye.
In 1981, at the age of 12, he turned up at the annual meeting of industrial giant GEC, where his father was on the board. The youngster made a speech complaining about the amount being paid out in dividends, and was the only one present to oppose. “I’m always the only person voting against these things,” he acknowledged wryly to the Financial Times afterwards (£).
Buttressed by extraordinary privilege, Rees-Mogg found his persona early. He appears in Tatler in 1985, with the interviewer Vicki Woods visiting the Eton student’s grand family home in Smith Square, at the heart of Westminster. “Jacob has been interviewed so often that he thinks he’s learned the trick of it,” she wrote of the 16-year-old. “He wore a dark suit, dark tie, white shirt, black brogues. He speaks sonorously and in paragraphs, nodding away like a Latin master ...”
It is tempting to conclude nothing has changed since. Watching Rees-Mogg around parliament shows he is a man of a remarkable calm certainty; if his face flushes slightly under pressure, his steady voice never changes pitch. Political colleagues and opponents say they have never seen him lose his temper; when asked what he is like in private, everybody starts by emphasising his courtesy.
The MP’s principal complaint against the protesters who sought to disrupt his talk at the University of the West of England on Friday last week was that they wore “sinister” masks. He told parliament’s joint committee on human rights that “people shouting at you and heckling you is part of political life” although he earlier admitted that had it got physically nasty he could have done nothing about it because he is a “complete weed”.
In Westminster, he constantly wears resolutely unfashionable dark double-breasted suits. In his constituency of North East Somerset, he switches to a tweed jacket, never wearing anything more casual. A story that his nanny drove him around so he could go canvassing when he first stood for parliament in Fife in 1997 became legendary.
He cheerfully admits it (saying only that the car was not a Bentley but a Mercedes). Nothing has changed since. Tessa Munt, a former Lib Dem MP elsewhere in Somerset, remembers the same woman, Veronica Crook, driving Rees-Mogg and his family “in a white Range Rover, with him sitting in the front seat” to a television debate in Bristol ahead of the EU referendum.
Crook has been working with the Rees-Moggs since 1965, helping raise Jacob in the years when his father William was editor of the Times. He has said “she thinks of me as one of the children she is looking after” in a talk last week at Queen Mary, University of London. It is her job to change nappies, Rees-Mogg says, having never done so himself; although he admits for “reasons of practicality” his wife has done so too.
She is the wealthy Helena de Chair, who stays at home looking after their six children. Her late father was a Tory MP, and her mother is worth an estimated £45m. It was under one her mother’s six Van Dycks that Rees-Mogg is said to have proposed.
But there was domestic turbulence too. Those who know the family well say his father William suffered heavy losses on the Lloyds London Insurance market, forcing him to keep working into his 80s, about the time Jacob was at Oxford, where he left with a degree in history from Trinity College. He worked briefly at the Telegraph, on the diary under Quentin Letts, but said he was “hopeless” at his father’s trade. Money mattered more, and the school-boy investor got into fund management, later running an emerging markets hedge fund, before setting up Somerset Capital Management with two others in 2007.
Rees-Mogg still spends about 30 hours a month acting as a partner, earning £21,000 in December and £176,500 over 2017, plus a dividend on his shareholding of over 15% which he has not disclosed but is estimated at £4m. It is more than enough to allow him to own a four-bed townhouse in Mayfair, London as well as a six-bedroom, four-bathroom manor house in West Harptree, Somerset.
Rees-Mogg was first elected in 2010, with a majority of 4,914, and spent most of the Cameron years as a joke figure, dubbed “member for the eighteenth century”. The MP, a Catholic, holds views so traditional that they no longer can be considered part of the normal left-right continuum of British politics. He said he was against abortion, has argued for the existing 24-week term to be reduced by “as many weeks as possible” and in a BBC radio exchange that stunned his interviewer said that a woman should not have an abortion even after a rape. “A great wrong has been created at the point of a rape. The question is – does a second wrong make it any better?” He is also opposed to gay marriage, although he said in September that he would go to a gay wedding if asked and probably enjoy it because “it is not for me to enforce my morals on others”.
But his perception has been transformed by Brexit to the point where he has become the standard bearer of the Tory right from the moment Boris Johnson went into government. The unyielding ultra positioning, his willingness to take on ministers of his own party, make him hot political property at a time when Theresa May struggles to articulate a clear position on Brexit. Meanwhile, the backing of the European Research Group gives him an organisation he has hitherto lacked.
Rees-Mogg told an unimpressed David Davis at a parliamentary committee that Britain would be a “vassal state” during a Brexit transition period if it was also subject to the ECJ, accepting new single market rules, and paying money to the EU budget. He leaped to the defence of Brexit minister Steve Baker on Friday, who was under fire for his criticism of Treasury forecasts and officials, with five tweets tagged “TreasuryGate” saying that a recording of a pro-EU thinktank boss revealed that “the chancellor or his officials were trying to frustrate Brexit”.
Tory MPs say that when they ask their constituency associations who they would next like to hear speak, the answer is invariably Rees-Mogg. The Somerset MP is not obviously a clubbable type when in the Commons, preferring to sit alone on the far right behind the ministerial dispatch box. But with the time available to him because he is a backbencher, he is always willing to travel to give speeches, particularly on Thursday and Friday evenings. One fellow MP recalls him visiting their constituency in East Anglia, finishing up at around 10.45pm, before, on this occasion, driving himself back to Somerset. “So many of us owe him for turning up,” they said.
In a party that still yearns for Thatcher-like certainty, Rees-Mogg’s self-confident manner and get-out-of-Europe views may be what the faithful want if it comes to a leadership contest. If, that is, they can set aside his infamous views on family life and abortion.
24 May 1969, Hammersmith
Degree in history at Trinity College, Oxford. Works in investment banking before co-founding Somerset Capital Management in 2007, a hedge fund which now has $9.6bn under management.
Stands unsuccessfully for parliament in Central Fife in 1997 and The Wrekin in 2001, before being elected in North East Somerset in 2010. Chair of the Tory backbench European Research Group since January.
Being named as favourite to become next Tory leader on a poll at Conservative Home earlier this month. When asked if he wanted to become PM, he said “I think want is very much the wrong word,” and added it would be “very, very difficult” given he has six children and is a “family man”.
A series of exchanges on abortion with Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live that culminated in him saying he was unsure about abortion in the case of rape, describing a termination in such circumstances as a “second wrong”.
On not having changed a nappy: “You’d be amazed at how many men I have spoken to who have said they’ve not changed any nappies either, or lucky me ... It’s absolutely true nanny would not think it a good idea for me to be changing nappies. She thinks it is her job and people do take a pride in their job.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him out of a waistcoat”: Tessa Munt, former Lib Dem MP for Wells.“Bigot!”: protesters at the University of the West of England.
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