Jacob Rees-Mogg has told ConHome he is not running for the Conservative leadership. In this interview he declares that the growing campaign to make him leader, championed on this site by Anne Sutherland, is “very flattering” but “I’m not taking it seriously”.
The MP for North-East Somerset wants Theresa May to carry on as Prime Minister “for ever and ever”. He adds that although the Conservatives “got in a terrible flap over the general election”, they should calm down over the summer and realise they have suffered a “disappointment”, not a “catastrophe”.
Rees-Mogg, whose sixth son, Sixtus, was born recently, points out that like Margaret Thatcher, whose prime ministership appeared in 1981 to be collapsing, but who stayed in office for another nine years, May could well remain much longer in Downing Street than people expect.
He rejects the idea that his own career has in any way been impeded by anti-Etonian prejudice. As a prominent Roman Catholic, he says that belonging to that Church is now no bar to being Prime Minister, or “to any job in the United Kingdom other than ones within the Anglican Church”.
Rees-Mogg says his “real ambition”, which is to go on Test Match Special, will be fulfilled at the end of August.
ConHome: “What do you think of the campaign to make you leader?”
Rees-Mogg [after a pause]: “Well it’s very flattering. I can’t help but be flattered. But I’m not taking it seriously.
“I don’t think giving one’s son an unusual name is a qualification for being Prime Minister. And I’m glad to say there isn’t a vacancy.
“I’m a backbench Tory MP, and can’t be a serious candidate. But it’s very charming.”
ConHome: “Do you want to be leader?”
Rees-Mogg: “I don’t think it’s wise to have ambitions above one’s station. But I love being a Tory MP.
“I love representing North-East Somerset, and my real ambition is going to be fulfilled at the end of August, when I’m going to be interviewed by Jonathan Agnew for the View From The Boundary on Test Match Special.
“What more can anybody want in life than to be a Member of Parliament for Somerset and to be interviewed by Test Match Special? Life is complete.”
ConHome: “Have you had any contact with these enthusiasts who have set up a website?”
Rees-Mogg: “Not directly. I do see some very nice things that they say.”
ConHome: “Why haven’t you been offered a frontbench job?”
Rees-Mogg: “Because there are many better people filling frontbench jobs at the moment, and there’s no obvious need to offer me one.”
ConHome: “Is there an anti-Etonian prejudice stalking the land?”
Rees-Mogg: “I don’t think so. It seems to me Old Etonians aren’t doing too badly, all things considered. I mean the great thing about Eton is not whether there’s any prejudice in later life, but it gives people a fabulous education.
“And what all Old Etonians should be thinking about who are in public life is how can Eton’s style of education be copied throughout the country. Because people from all over the world try to get their children into Eton.
“It must therefore being doing something not only right, but it must be doing something very well, to a global standard. And the question we should ask is not, ‘Is it an establishment that leads to people objecting to it later in life?’ but ‘Can we be sure every child in the United Kingdom can get as good an education as is available at Eton?’
“And why not? Why aren’t we thinking about that? It’s what the push should be for. And I think it’s where Michael Gove was such an inspired Secretary of State for Education, because I think that’s basically what he was trying to do.”
ConHome: “But do you think there’s a general anti-Etonian prejudice? The other thing about Eton is that it’s continually changing. People have some idea of it as a repository of hereditary blockheads or something.”
Rees-Mogg: “Well I’m a sort of throw-back to that.”
ConHome: “It’s actually quite a difficult school to get into.”
Rees-Mogg: “It is now very difficult to get into. It wasn’t when I went. When I went it was very easy to get into. They frankly trawled the hedgerows of Somerset.
“But no, I don’t think there is [a prejudice]. The former Prime Minister was an Old Etonian. The Foreign Secretary is an Old Etonian. The Archbishop of Canterbury is an Old Etonian.
“If this is what Old Etonians are doing against a great tsunami of prejudice it isn’t a very effective tsunami. So no, I don’t think it’s an issue for Old Etonians, and I also have no sympathy for Old Etonians who complain, because they have had the greatest advantage in the early stage of their life that they could possibly have, a fine education, in most cases with their parents making sacrifices to send them there, and the odd Old Etonian does moan, and I think this is entirely foolish really.”
ConHome: “Of course the proportion both in places like the City and in the Conservative Party of Old Etonians is considerably lower than it used to be.”
Rees-Mogg: “And that’s a thoroughly good thing, because more people are coming into a variety of walks of life. And the City is so much bigger.
“If you think of how much bigger the City is than it was prior to Big Bang, if it was still entirely staffed by Old Etonians there wouldn’t be enough to go round.
“But that’s the success of the City of London, which is one of the great triumphs of the United Kingdom – something of which we should all be very proud. Indeed without the revenue the City of London generates the country would be considerably poorer.”
ConHome: “Leaving your own situation aside, is it conceivable now that we shall have a Roman Catholic Prime Minister – I don’t think we’ve ever had one, Blair converted afterwards – is it conceivable that a Catholic who’s opposed to same-sex marriage could become Leader of the Conservative Party and indeed Prime Minister?”
Rees-Mogg: “I don’t think Catholicism, and accepting the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church, is any bar to any job in the United Kingdom other than ones within the Anglican Church, and being Sovereign. The Sovereign is Head of the Anglican Church.
“Catholic Emancipation, 1829, only requires that Catholics do not interfere in appointments in the Church of England. And it’s quite interesting that Tony Blair followed that very carefully, because he liked appointing bishops, which would have been a felony under the Act of Emancipation, if he had been formally a Catholic.
“Iain Duncan Smith was leader of the Conservative Party and nobody said he couldn’t go on to become Prime Minister because he was a Catholic. And indeed I think it would be very strange if this country still discriminated on the grounds of religion in public office.
“If you turn your question round and consider whether you would say that about any other major or even minority religion. Would you say that a Zoroastrian, for example…”
ConHome: “I’m rather pro-Zoroastrian.”
Rees-Mogg: “So am I. But you wouldn’t even ask the question.”
ConHome: “No, no, no.”
Rees-Mogg: “And I don’t notice in this country any anti-Catholic bias.”
ConHome: “I think it’s pretty much died out in most places.”
Rees-Mogg: “There was, 50 years ago, but I think there’s very little now. My father [William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times 1967-81] certainly came up against it sometimes in his life. I think in his generation there was still some.”
ConHome: “How long do you think the present Prime Minister should remain in office?”
Rees-Mogg: “For ever and ever, Amen, Amen, Alleluia, Alleluia, Amen.”
Rees-Mogg: “We’ve all got in a terrible flap over the general election, and it’s quite unnecessary. It wasn’t as good as we’d hoped. But the Conservative Party is still the party of government. The Prime Minister is still the Prime Minister.
“You know all she’s done. She got more votes than anybody since 1983, and the Conservative share was more votes than Blair in 1997.
“If expectations hadn’t been so high this would have been seen as a good result. If David Cameron had got this in 2015 it would have looked triumphant.
“So it was all really about expectations and not meeting inflated expectations, which you and I both had, because I heard you on Broadcasting House [confessing to expecting a huge Tory majority], which is one of my favourite programmes.
“You were admitting to exactly what I was guilty of. And so that led to a sense of disappointment. But disappointment has been written up as a catastrophe.
“It’s not a catastrophe. Nobody’s died. We’re all still alive. I think a calmer evaluation of the election result is necessary.
“I think the summer is the opportunity for people to think it through, and to realise that all parties need to be led. There is no obvious candidate to take over from Theresa May.
“And actually as Paul Goodman was writing this morning, a candidate who did take over would have no greater majority in the House of Commons, no automatic bigger authority, but would be under pressure to have another general election.
“I think Brenda in Bristol hit the nail on the head. People have had enough elections for the time being. They want Parliament to get on with the job of being Parliament, and the Government to get on with the job of being the Government.
“So I think calm reflection over the summer will encourage people to think that we want Mrs May to stay.
“And then you start speculating about how long that stay should be for, which is the favourite topic of conversation of almost everybody within the Palace of Westminster, journalists and politicians alike, about all Prime Ministers, always. And that’s no change.
“I think the interesting lesson of history on this is that Prime Ministers go when you’re not expecting them to. If you think of David Cameron, in 2015 he looked as if he was set forever.
“Tony Blair, even in 2005, looked as if he could be Prime Minister practically for life. And then events transpired that shortened the leasehold.
“Other Prime Ministers who look as if everything is collapsing go on and recover and do amazingly strongly. Look at Margaret Thatcher in 1981, is perhaps the best example.
“Look at the position Harold Macmillan was in after he took over from Eden, and what he was able to do with that. And so these things are not easily forecastable, and are never as bad as they seem, or as good as they seem.”