Jacob’s Ladder: The Unauthorised Biography of Jacob Rees-Mogg by Michael Ashcroft
All future biographers of Jacob Rees-Mogg will be in Michael Ashcroft’s debt. Never before has so much material been assembled from such a wealth of sources about the first 50 years of the man appointed this summer by the new Prime Minister to serve as Leader of the House of Commons.
That event occurs three pages from the end of this book, so here is an account unaffected by the triumphs and disasters with which its subject will meet in high office.
Rees-Mogg is often depicted as a figure who has stepped straight from the pages of P.G.Wodehouse, a comic turn rather than a serious politician. When he was filmed the other day almost prone on the Treasury Bench, this was regarded as either funny or disgraceful, but certainly not as serious.
His fans see him as an endlessly amusing rebuke to everything that has happened to the Conservative Party since 1965, and applaud him for upholding sartorial standards which almost every other Tory has allowed to slip, with even Sir Nicholas Soames yielding to the modern age by appearing in the House in what look like trainers.
Rees-Mogg’s critics cannot bear him, and perhaps never will, especially as in their eyes he is in on the wrong side of the Europe debate. They deride him as a bad joke, an anachronistic toff, a ludicrous plutocrat who cannot understand how ordinary people think and feel about things.
In the course of Ashcroft’s account, the inadequacy of both these accounts soon becomes apparent. For although this biography is crammed with “well fancy that” moments, many of which are wonderfully amusing, it is not composed in the manner of a comedy.
The style owes nothing to Wodehouse, or to Evelyn Waugh, neither of whom would have written, “the EU question was now circling British politics rather like a shark which has smelled blood”.
The tone is journalistic, as when Ashcroft says of another character, “his upbringing got off to a devastating start as a result of being interrupted by tragedy”. Expert attempts are made in this book to establish the net worth of its subject, a quintessentially journalistic inquiry.
And the greatest influence on Rees-Mogg is rightly identified as a journalist: his own father, William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times.
The father could write an eloquent and authoritative editorial on any subject in an astonishingly short time when needed. The son possesses the same ability, but produces his verdict in the form of a speech.
And Rees-Mogg the younger is quite unafraid of the company of journalists. Indeed, he seems to revel in it. Among modern politicians, the ability to relax in the company of journalists is not as widespread as one might expect.
The anxious, cautious careerist – a type widely found at Westminster – regards the press as suspect, interested only in discovering embarrassing stories which might terminate the career in question.
From his boyhood onwards, Rees-Mogg has treated the press as his ally, and has understood that what it needs is vivid and amusing copy, the more outspoken the better.
At the age of 11, he sprang to media attention by addressing, as a shareholder, the annual general meeting of Lonrho. Soon he was being interviewed by Jean Rook of The Daily Express, known as The First Lady of Fleet Street, and was telling her:
“I like playing with money. I love the stuff; I want more and more of it… I’ve always loved money as money, not for what it buys. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know the answer to it.”
Here was a child who knew the value of talking the story up. In 1982, at the age of 12, he made his first television appearance, during which (the presenter recalls) “he wasn’t intimidated at all”, and grasped that the point of the programme, during which he is seen meeting his stockbroker, is for him “to look bossy and like I’m telling the stockbroker what to do”.
Here is a media performer of exceptional precocity, who learned at least part of his art from his father, and knew that if you wanted people to pay attention, it paid to turn the volume up. He has remained a prolific performer, who has recently recorded over 30 episodes of the Moggcast for ConHome.
The actor Dominic West, an exact contemporary at Eton, said in a recent interview that Rees-Mogg was
“exactly the same as now; he’s never changed, which is both admirable and dodgy. Despite the sober exterior, he’s a showbiz tart.”
This is not quite fair. Rees-Mogg also has a sober interior. Like his father, he is a devout Roman Catholic.
And at Oxford, and indeed subsequently, Rees-Mogg was neither louche nor drunk. In a previous “unauthorised biography”, Ashcroft related a scandalous and unauthenticated story about David Cameron and a pig’s head.
These pages are chaste by comparison. Rees-Mogg got to know Daniel Hannan and Mark Reckless at university, and in 1990 was one of the first to join their Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain.
Bertie Wooster would not have done that. Nor did Cameron. Rees-Mogg was from an early stage a convinced eurosceptic.
Simon Hoare, now the MP for North Dorset, met him at the Oxford Union:
“We happened to be sitting next to each other by fluke and fell into conversation, and that’s where it all started. He’d obviously been very active in the Conservative Party, as had I. We sort of hit it off. We were both Tories, both Catholics, so we had that in common, and you have this rather incongruous friendship, if you will. I’d gone to a state Catholic school in Cardiff, and here I was, the first of my family at university, becoming great mates with someone who had an entirely different background.
“There’s not a snobbish bone in his body. He will talk to anybody and always with the same degree of politeness and charm, even if they’re hurling abuse at him or pouring great praise on him. He’s got that very even temper.”
Rees-Mogg was for some years innocently employed getting money in the City and Hong Kong. He stood as a Tory candidate in Central Fife in 1997 and in The Wrekin in 2001, on both occasions doing far more than the bare minimum of work, but was not able to get into Parliament until 2010, for North-East Somerset.
His old-fashioned manner has long led him to be underestimated. While Cameron was party leader, Rees-Mogg was regarded as an impediment to modernisation.
But for those with eyes to see, Rees-Mogg was a rising star. As Ashcroft points out, Tim Montgomerie suggested in 2012 on ConHome that in 2020, Boris Johnson might be Prime Minister, and Rees-Mogg Leader of the House.