Jacob Rees-Mogg is seen by some observers as the nearest thing the Commons has to a figure from the pages of P.G.Wodehouse. But he begins this interview by contending that “we have become essentially a classless society”.
Although Rees-Mogg hails Boris Johnson as “very much” a future leader, he also warns that the Tories ought not to change their leader so often.
According to Rees-Mogg, now is the time to “love-bomb”, not “carpet-bomb”, UKIP voters, many of whom used to be Conservative voters. He points out that UKIP cannot find 650 parliamentary candidates, so it ought to be open to a pre-election alliance with the Conservatives. Rees-Mogg is strongly in favour of such an arrangement.
One reason, he says, why the Conservatives are not so popular as they deserve to be, given their success in government, is that they still use the “cuddly” language of the Left. So when Conservative policies produce good results, the credit does not go to the Conservatives.
In his election address next year to the voters of North-East Somerset, Rees-Mogg will spell out exactly what he wishes to obtain from the forthcoming renegotiation of our membership of the European Union: “I think going in to a renegotiation without giving any indication of what you want is a pretty weak position.”
He is determined to regain control of our borders, so that an Indian has as much chance as a Bulgarian of moving to Britain. In essence, Rees-Mogg wants “the restoration of authority to the House of Commons”.
This interview offered the chance to verify a previously unpublished and highly amusing story about an incident when Rees-Mogg stood in 1997 as the Conservative candidate in Central Fife: the campaign in which he became famous for being helped by the family nanny.
ConHome: “In what way does social class still matter?”
Rees-Mogg: “I don’t think much at all. I think that we have become essentially a classless society. I do not see, around North-East Somerset, people defining themselves specifically by their class. Some politicians try to use it to their advantage, but then get caught out, don’t they. Mr Miliband’s bacon sandwich was a classic example of this.
“I so strongly believe in the individuality of each and every one of us that I’m not keen on trying to put people into collective groups, and saying that because I belong to this part of the collective I understand every other member of it. I think that’s fundamentally bogus. And everyone has their own individual view on life which no one else can fully understand, but it is possible to empathise with. And I think class was conceivably important up until the 1950s, but has been increasingly less important since then.”
ConHome: “So is it a purely superficial phenomenon, the way people revel in you as supposedly a representative of old-fashioned upper-class behaviour?”
Rees-Mogg: “Yes I think it is. I think people quite enjoy having somebody metaphorically to throw sponges at, and I don’t see any harm in that, but I don’t think it is particularly important.”
ConHome: “Do you think the Tories have made the mistake of thinking it’s more important than it really is?”
Rees-Mogg: “Well your subject, Boris Johnson, manages very successfully to avoid the problem by insisting that it doesn’t exist.”
ConHome: “Well also by exaggerating it to the point of absurdity.”
Rees-Mogg: “And I think he’s right.”
ConHome: “And he’s jolly pleased if someone says, you were in the Bullingdon Club. He starts pointing out that David Dimbleby was in the Bullingdon Club, and emitting barbaric cries.”
Rees-Mogg: “Yes. I was not a member of the Bullingdon Club.”
ConHome: “No, no, I realise you weren’t.”
Rees-Mogg: “I was a member of the Canning Club.”
ConHome: “Yes. I think Boris was in the Canning too.”
Rees-Mogg: “He probably was. We discussed learned papers, while drinking claret, actually.”
ConHome: “And not a single restaurant was destroyed.”
Rees-Mogg: “No. Restaurants were not damaged.”
ConHome: “Did you read a paper?”
Rees-Mogg: “I wrote a paper for it. You’ll never guess what it was on.”
Rees-Mogg: “It was on the European Union.”
ConHome: “I feel a twinge of disappointment.”
Rees-Mogg: “Yes I’m sorry. You thought it was on some more intellectual subject. But no, I think Boris gets it right, because he realises it’s not actually of fundamental importance, and therefore doesn’t shy away from it, isn’t nervous about it. I think some of the spin doctors get unduly worried about it.”
ConHome: “That was atrocious, when your sister was advised to…” [His sister, Annunziata Rees-Mogg, who stood in 2010 as Tory candidate in Somerton and Frome, was reportedly urged in 2009 by David Cameron to shorten her name to Nancy Mogg.]
Rees-Mogg: “I’ve always assumed that was a joke.”
ConHome: “I never examined whether it was a joke. That would be the charitable explanation. Talking about jokes, quite a long time ago I was talking to Philip Dunne [MP for Ludlow], and his brother was your agent when you stood in Fife, is that right?”
ConHome: “And he had a really delightful story that you insisted during your campaign in Fife that you must address public meetings, and at one public meeting there was only a woman with a small child present, so your agent said, ‘Look, don’t let’s bother with this, there’s only one person here.’ But you insisted on speaking, and after about half an hour the woman put up her hand and said, ‘Is the mother and toddler group cancelled?’”
Rees-Mogg: “Yes, that’s absolutely true. But jokes are dangerous, because they get taken to be serious political points.”
ConHome: “On the other hand, Boris is very good at using the expectation that people will derive some amusement from an event to actually get a serious point across.”
Rees-Mogg: “He’s a very remarkable phenomenon. Incredibly capable, and very clever at actually getting across quite an important message, and making people like it. Which is very rare. I can’t think of anybody else who does that. The other two very good politicians at the moment are Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage. But they get their message across in a very divisive way. You’re either for them or against them.”
ConHome: “So Boris is a possible leader when one is required?”
Rees-Mogg: “Oh yes, very much so. But I’m sure the Prime Minister will go on… [the interviewer’s laughter here obscured the exact words]. Quite seriously, I think the Tory Party makes a huge mistake in being so footloose and fancy-free about its leaders. I think we need to have leaders and stick to them. For all it’s fun gossiping about who might be the next leader, we just need to be serious about it and say Cameron’s our leader and there we go and we’re backing him and let’s get on with it.”
ConHome: “Are you still in favour of a deal with UKIP?”
Rees-Mogg: “I think UKIP needs a deal, because I think UKIP is finding it difficult to find 650 candidates, and that’s being reported on a daily basis. I think political parties need to look very closely at the opinion polls, and that neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party is getting close to the 40 per cent needed to win an overall majority.
“And they therefore need to look at how they can build up support in a prospective Parliament. And I would therefore be willing to do deals in individual seats. And it turned out regrettably that the opinion poll in Doncaster was wrong. But had it been right it would have been interesting. Had it been possible to defeat the Leader of the Labour Party by the forces of small-c conservatism uniting, then that seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
“But equally there are some Lib Dem MPs where the Conservatives can’t possibly win, and I think particularly of Gordon Birtwistle (Lib Dem, Burnley) and John Hemming (Lib Dem, Birmingham Yardley), who are independent-minded, not figures of the Left. Would it be better if they got into Parliament or a socialist?
“And so I think we need to look at the alliances we will need before rather than after an election. And we need to be more tactical about how we fight the campaign.
“If you look at what Labour and the Lib Dems did prior to the 1997 election, which came out in Lord Ashdown’s memoirs, they had a secret deal. They would campaign gently in seats they could not win, to the other party’s advantage: looking to a post-election pact that never happened, because Labour did too well. I think this is an interesting model. And I think the percentages that the main parties are now getting make this something that is worth doing more about.”
ConHome: “The line at the moment seems to be that UKIP must be destroyed.”
Rees-Mogg: “That’s been the line for quite a long time and it hasn’t worked. The problem with attacking UKIP is that you also end up attacking their voters, about two-thirds of whom used to be our voters, and who are thoroughly decent, extremely respectable people, who I would like to vote for me in Somerset and for Conservatives up and down the country.
“And I think it’s very strange that prior to the last election, Conservative Party policy was to love-bomb Liberal Democrats, and now the party policy is to carpet-bomb UKIP. I actually thought the love-bombing of Liberal Democrats was an intelligent strategy. And I think the love-bombing of UKIP would also be an intelligent strategy.”
ConHome: “One of the under-remarked achievements of David Cameron has been to make life very very difficult for the Liberal Democrats, by being a liberal Conservative.”
Rees-Mogg: “In the 2010 election it didn’t win as many seats [from the Lib Dems] as we had hoped for, but in 2015 it probably will.”
ConHome: “What else should the Conservatives be doing to give themselves the best chances in the election? Some of us are already a little weary – of course we’re freakish characters, because we listen or try to listen to a lot of what’s said – but we weary already of hearing about Oltep [Our Long-Term Economic Plan].”
Rees-Mogg: “I’m very impressed that you’ve said it before I have.”
ConHome: “We don’t like the word ‘plan’ anyhow, and the sheer level of mechanical repetition seems to us to be a bit of an insult to the intelligence of the electorate.”
Rees-Mogg: “The funny thing about the Government at the moment – it is basically a Conservative Government – is that it’s done extraordinarily well in lots of areas, and is not as popular as you would therefore expect it to be.
“But I think our education reforms are absolutely remarkable. It’s amazing how much has been achieved there.
“Likewise welfare. If you had said in 2010 that we could possibly have done half what’s been achieved on welfare, no one would have believed you. It was so radical and look what’s happened, more people have jobs than ever before. It’s absolutely extraordinary and it’s transforming people’s lives.
“And public spending, it’s been brought under control. It’s not perfect, there are more cuts to be made, but I actually think it was wise not to cut too aggressively, because you never know at what point you tip an economy over, and you have to be quite cautious about how you implement these things, and you also have to remember that you are dealing with individuals, so that when you cut a job in the public sector, you are firing someone who has a mortgage to pay, a family to feed and so on. You can’t be too ruthless about that. You sometimes have to do it, but you want to be very careful, and I think the balance has been broadly got right.
“So that’s three huge areas of government policy, and yet that’s not reflected in the opinion polls.”
ConHome: “Why is that?”
Rees-Mogg: “Well I think there is a problem of trust with politicians. And I think that’s partly a hang-over from the expenses issue, but I also think it’s partly the development of spin and the practice that pre-dates Blair but was perfected by Blair of ensuring that everything is done for the next day’s headlines rather than building up a bigger picture. I think it’s partly because we bought in too much to the Labour Party’s language.
“And therefore we have achieved things by being Conservative, but we don’t admit to it, because we like to use the language of the Left. When we talk about public spending we still say investment. We don’t mean investment. We mean spending.
“Investment is putting money in a bank, earning interest and getting it back. Spending is building a new road. It may have economic consequences, but they do not provide a direct economic return to the person who’s made the investment.
“We talk about being progressive. We’re not progressive. We’re conservative. We don’t believe in changing things that don’t need to be changed. And so I think language is very, very important, and that we have thought the language of the Left is cuddly, and that therefore people will like it. Actually what’s happened is it’s made it very difficult to explain why we’ve done the good things we’ve done. Which are actually much more cuddly than what the Left does, because they actually improve people’s lives.
“Having said that, I can see why we did it. By 2005 it looked as if the Tories couldn’t win an election, and so we thought ‘Well, New Labour’s got a monopoly on how to communicate with the electorate’, and I don’t think that’s worked. I also think, and this is the point at which I become a euro-bore…”
ConHome: “You’re mercilessly self-critical.”
Rees-Mogg: “No I’m not, I’m not, I just wanted to give a warning as your eyes glaze over. But I do think there’s a real problem that we have ceded so many powers to Europe that we say we’ll do something about agriculture and we can’t do anything. Great swathes of our manifesto will be covering areas where we do not have control of public policy. We say we’ll try to do this, we hope to do that, whereas Margaret Thatcher could do it, by and large.”
ConHome: “She did sign the Single European Act.”
Rees-Mogg: “Which was a great mistake.”
ConHome: “Polling suggests the Tories suffer from being seen as a party of the rich.”
Rees-Mogg: “Well we want everybody to be rich. That’s part of what the Tory Party exists for. And we don’t envy wealth, we encourage it. We should be much more rigorous than we are about distinguishing between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Eliding the two actually undermines the rule of law. If the House of Commons cannot draft proper Finance Bills that make it clear what tax people are supposed to pay, you cannot expect voters out of the goodness of their heart to pay more tax than they’re obliged to. Even Mr Russell Brand doesn’t pay more tax than he’s obliged to, I don’t suppose, he may do, I don’t know his tax affairs.”
ConHome: “It’s very unlikely.”
Rees-Mogg: “It seems improbable, doesn’t it. And if you start saying, well, if you buy duty free, you’re a terrible tax avoider, you have to ask why did the Government allow duty free in the first place? This applies to all the funny schemes the Government comes up with that encourage tax avoidance, until people use them, and then they say this is shocking tax avoidance.”
ConHome: “So since 2010 there have not been proper measures to deal with this problem?”
Rees-Mogg: “Oh I think our tax law has got worse and worse.”
ConHome: “In what respects might your election address be different from other Conservative MPs?”
Rees-Mogg: “Well obviously I don’t know what the main party manifesto will be. I think in all normal respects I will be dutifully following the line: what we’re going to be saying on the police and on health and education. I have no quibble on what Central Office is saying and what the Government is doing.
“The only area in which I would have different things to say is constitutionally and that obviously includes the EU. I think it’s very important for the Conservative Party to set out what it wants to achieve in renegotiation. I think going in to a renegotiation without giving any indication of what you want is a pretty weak position.
“And you need to give people an idea of what your ambition is so they can judge whether you’ve succeeded or not, and then decide whether to vote to stay in or to come out. So if the party isn’t clear on that, I will be clear on that.”
ConHome: “What in your view are the things which should be achieved?”
Rees-Mogg: “Well essentially I think we should be in a free-trading group rather than in a federal state, a political union, and I say free trade rather than single market, because the single market is not designed as a free-trading area, it’s designed as a regulated area, and most of the rules we find disagreeable. Most of the qualified majority voting comes from the single market. So one should be careful to differentiate.
“But I think the absolutely fundamental thing is that I would want it to be clear that the final arbiter of what we have agreed is to be us rather than them. If you take some of the decisions that have gone against us, such as on the 48-hour working week, or the more recent one on our opt-out from the processing of road traffic offences, those have gone against us because the European Court of Justice, or more strictly the Court of Justice of the European Union, has ruled that the treaty base being used is one that does not give us the opt-out that we thought we had.
“Now as the CJEU is part of the institutions of the European Union, it seems to me that you have an umpire who is on the side of one of the players in any judgment. And that is unreasonable and we should therefore determine what we have in fact agreed. That doesn’t mean I don’t see a role for the CJEU in saying ‘You accept you’ve agreed this and therefore such and such follows’. That seems to me a perfectly reasonable role for an arbitrator. But I think to say, ‘You thought you agreed to X. Parliament voted for X. But actually we’re telling you it’s Y’, in my view exceeds their treaty rights. And we should establish that as a first principle, and that’s basically the restoration of authority to the House of Commons.
“And then there are lots of details. I think we should have control over our borders, not because I want to close our borders, but because I don’t see why we should have preferential treatment for member states of the European Union, against other countries which are closer allies of ours, and with which we have a more deeply intertwined history.”
ConHome: “Which countries did you have in mind?”
Rees-Mogg: “Well coming immediately to mind is India, from which we have already a very large population. Why should we say to my constituent who wants to sort out the passport of her Indian husband that he can’t come in easily, when he’s as it happens a very distinguished doctor, when if she were Bulgarian, she could bring in anybody she liked, if she were married to him. It doesn’t make any sense.
“We’ve got a much closer, long-standing relationship with India than we have with Bulgaria. I’ve got nothing against Bulgarians at all. But I just don’t see why they have a priority. And we should then control that. So I’m not talking about a free-for-all in terms of immigration. I’m talking about saying we will make it level for all countries.”