Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset, has seen a turbulent rise to prominence in the party and is now tipped to be number one for the leadership position – although he has made it clear that he doesn’t deem it appropriate for a backbencher to eye up the role. This, interestingly, has come after a political life of relative struggle: his first election in Central Fife 1997 was a notable low point, where he earned only 9% of all votes which is significantly fewer than previous Conservative candidates in the area. It was only in 2010 that he locked in the MP position with 4,914 votes. In the wake of the snap election this year, there has been another boost to the ‘Moggmentum’: initially only 50/1 odds for leadership favourite at bookmakers, the months since then have seen him overtake rivals David Davis and Boris Johnson. A ConservativeHome survey taken on the 5th of September now pitches him as favourite with 23% of votes in 1,309 people surveyed.
Rees-Mogg holds a great deal of appeal for Conservatives. Aside from the smack of an underdog he has, he is a staunch Brexiteer and is distinctly more outspoken about the desire for smaller state than others in the Tory camp. There can be no doubt that his charisma plays a role too; his use of filibuster in the Commons is a distinct trait. Eloquent and witty, he swings a fist at the establishment in the name of the people on regular occasion. On the 7th of December 2011, in a debate on the London Local Authorities Bill he said that council officials who have the power to issue on the spot fines should be made to wear bowler hats – it is this ridicule of an all too often overreaching state that gives him a significant boost for the small government crowd.
This turbulent rise to the fore saw Rees-Mogg appearing on Good Morning Britain on the 6th, where he unfortunately wasn’t given fair hearing. This can be attributed to the understandably fleeting nature of live morning TV appearances, but also the keenness of Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid to lead what smelt a lot like a blatant character assassination. This is ironic as Piers Morgan acknowledged at the start of the interview the importance of reasoned debate, before backtracking on that minutes later. When Rees-Mogg’s cultural conservatism was brought into conversation, the hosts failed to understand (or perhaps chose not to understand) the distinct differences he draws between state authority and the authority of the church. They seem to equate personal values with instant institution in government, quietly combing over the fact that Rees-Mogg explained ‘none of these issues are party-political, they are issues that are decided by parliament on free votes. They are not determined by the Prime Minister. There is no question of these laws being changed – there would not be a majority in the House of Commons’. Moreover, he reinstated that ‘I don’t want to criticize people who lead lives different to mine’. There are two important points here. Rees-Mogg acknowledges the difference between the moral guidelines of his Catholic religion and the legal guidelines of the socially liberal 21st century state, and moreover has a welcome whiff of individualism about him. This, hopefully, would add up to a more laissez-faire state in the case if a Rees-Mogg government.
However, there is an authoritarianism that pervades his voting history which can’t be ignored. The most egregious example of this are his three votes for mass surveillance of citizenry: on the 15th March 2016, he voted to allow interference with equipment and interception of communications. On the 7th June that year, he voted for mass retention of information on people’s internet usage. This, along with voting for more UK military intervention overseas, seems separate from issues where he votes based on his religious belief. These are votes distinctly in favour of increasing government intervention in people’s lives and curtailing freedom, which rumble under the surface of his small government, filibustering charisma.
Fiscally, however, his voting history pitches him more on the side of freedom. He voted in favour of reducing capital gains tax, and is in favour of devolving power to local government level by voting in favour of letting local councils retain tax funds raised from businesses. He also voted in for more autonomy for individual schools, in favour of giving them some independence from authority.
It is this that makes Jacob Rees Mogg a truly mixed bag, and why even this charismatic outsider would not cause me to set my vote in the Conservative camp. Where he favours freedom when it comes to taxation, he airs on the side of statism when it comes to surveillance and foreign interventionism. This compromise, for those truly dedicated to liberty, should be unpalatable. It is unfortunate that in amongst the internet climate and culture one can often fail to look past the hashtags and buzz-phrases: there is no doubt that the man is charming, charismatic and a playful alternative to the current line of favourites in the Conservative establishment, but we shouldn’t rely on the good feelings and excitement of ‘Moggmentum’ to be the basis of our trust in a politician that could be another authoritarian wolf in freedom-coloured sheep’s clothes.