Jacob Rees-Mogg leads caucus that could hold Theresa May’s fate in its hands
Once caricatured as a backbench Bertie Wooster on account of his fogeyish style, prominent Brexiteer is today one of the most influential MPs at Westminster
Jacob Rees-Mogg: The European Parliament is not, he claims, “a serious parliament” or a proper democratic forum because it doesn’t represent a single people. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Theresa May has spent much of this week struggling to reconcile the two ends of her party over Brexit, shuttling between former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who leads the pro-European rebels, and Brexiteer shop steward Jacob Rees-Mogg. But for Rees-Mogg, the 49-year-old Somerset MP who chairs the European Research Group (ERG) of up to 60 hard Brexiteers, negotiating with the EU couldn’t be simpler.
“I think there’s a very straightforward deal actually. I think what we should say to the EU is: here’s £39 billion, and here’s a trade deal,” he says, forming each of his hands into a fist to demonstrate.
“If you give us one, we’ll give you the other. If you don’t give us the other, we won’t give you one. And then, for 21 months of the multiannual financial framework negotiation, you’re going to have to get more money from other member states.”
Once caricatured as a backbench Bertie Wooster on account of his fogeyish style, elongated vowels and reactionary outlook, Rees-Mogg is today one of the most influential MPs at Westminster. A consistent poll-topper in Conservative Home’s surveys of party members on who should be their next leader, he leads a caucus that could hold the prime minister’s fate in its hands.
Rees-Mogg, whose father William edited the London Times and went on to become a Conservative peer, made a fortune estimated in the tens of millions of pounds before becoming an MP. This week, it emerged that his investment company Somerset Capital Management had launched a new investment vehicle in Dublin, which advised investors that a hard Brexit could affect it adversely.
In any case, he doesn’t believe in the downside economic risks to Brexit, despite a warning from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that a hard exit from the EU could wipe out entire sectors of the British economy.
“The CBI represents incumbents. It doesn’t represent challengers, it doesn’t represent competition and if you represent incumbents, of course you want to maintain the cosy cartel that keeps prices high. But I’m on the side of my voters who are consumers and consumers want lower prices, lower tariffs, less obstructions to trade therefore non-tariff barriers too,” he says.
For Rees-Mogg, leaving the EU is about much more than economics or day-to-day politics, it is about democracy itself. He says one of the most important questions every member of parliament faces is whether he can seek redress of grievance for his constituents.
“And you can’t once it’s a European competence. Whereas when it’s a British competence you can raise it in the House of Commons, you can introduce a bill if you want to change the law. You have an active way of seeking redress of grievance for your constituents,” he says.
The European Parliament is not, he claims, “a serious parliament” or a proper democratic forum because it doesn’t represent a single people. “There are the peoples of Europe, there’s not a single European people. If there were a European people, the Germans wouldn’t mind subsidising the Greeks. But they hate it,” he says.
So is there a single British people? And is everyone in Northern Ireland part of it?
“Yes there is. By a long-established history. Northern Ireland is part of the UK,” he says. “Some of them wish to leave. And they have, under the Belfast Agreement, the right to a referendum under certain circumstances”.
But the agreement also gives them the right to identify as British or Irish or both, which would suggest that some of them have the right not to be part of the British people?
“Well they have a vote in the British election but they don’t have to use it. We don’t have compulsory voting, and I don’t think we should,” he says.
“I believe in the concept of nation-state. I think that’s where power validly belongs. And the people who belong to that nation-state have rights and duties within that nation-state, and the democracy applies to them. But I don’t believe that there is a European people that is willing to accept the burdens required for a single state.”
“We would be in an association with it, which would not make us subject to the ECJ, the ECJ would have no writ in the UK, it would have a writ in the chemicals agency. And that is different from the current position where if the ECJ ruled on the chemicals agency that would automatically be UK law. Under those circumstances, it would not be UK law and could not affect what happened in the UK unless we decided that it would,” he says.
“Voluntary alignment is fine because you can decide not to align if you think the regulation is going wrong,” he says.
What Rees-Mogg is describing is similar to Switzerland’s relationship with the EU, which is governed by numerous bilateral treaties that offer the Swiss a measure of sovereignty in theory but leaves them in reality as rule-takers from Brussels.
Despite the current chaos in Westminster and the slow progress of negotiations in Brussels, he believes that May will secure a deal from the EU.
“My guess is that there will be a deal. I’m in favour of a deal but I’m not frightened of leaving without it,” he says.