The sudden relevance of Jacob Rees-Mogg

UK Politics: The Tories are so drained of talent that almost anyone can aspire to lead them

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is seen breaking up a scuffle amid angry scenes after masked protesters disrupted a talk he was giving at a Bristol University. Video: Reuters

 

When does Britain’s tolerance of eccentricity cross from generous trait to national Achilles heel?

To look at the governing Conservatives, the question is not idle. Several are rattling the cage of their weak prime minister, Theresa May. The most vigorous of late have been Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, a backbench MP with the profile of a royal. In return for their Wodehousian idiom and whimsy, both are given a latitude that another nation might sensibly withhold.

Enough latitude, in Johnson’s case, to remain a contender for the premiership after an 18-month stab at diplomacy that would have sunk a plainer politician. Enough latitude, in Rees-Mogg’s case, to accuse the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” in its unencouraging forecast of Brexit’s economic effects.

He can do something about that alleged bias if, as the Sunday Times reports as a possibility under active discussion, he becomes chancellor of the exchequer in a Johnson-led government. As Leavers increasingly dread a diluted Brexit, with Britain kept inside some form of customs union, they cast around for one of their own to intercede.

This explains the sudden relevance of Rees-Mogg, who had seemed at ease with life on parliament’s colourful margins. But his emergence also exposes the vulnerabilities of British institutions generally, and of his party in particular.

There is no inherent crime in doubting the civil service’s claim to neutrality. Organisations develop interests of their own, as well as unconscious habits of mind. Ministers who have tried to reform the public services know that Whitehall is not always the dutiful instrument of its masters’ wishes. Some have elliptically said as much in public.

All the same, during and since the Europe referendum, the Bank of England, the Treasury, the judiciary and even the theoretical possibility of disinterested expertise have been impugned with a directness that was once out of bounds. As the case for Brexit implied the superiority of British institutions over fly-by-night European ones, this line of argument is perverse coming from Leavers. “The British state is rotten,” they seem to be saying, “so give it more power.”

As attacks on the Treasury forecasts intensify, you are left to hope that politicians are as cynical as their reputation – inventing a grievance against the messenger to distract from the grimness of the message. If, on the other hand, they mean what they say, then Britain is in a much worse fix. It implies that power is moving to a section of the Tory party that views the state as an organised conspiracy against the popular will, and economic modelling as suspect if it does not throw up the “right” answer.

It is an open question how the Tory right expects to govern if, as might happen soon, it displaces May.

Tragedy and farce

Some democracies are used to institutional flux: re-writes of the constitution, the fluctuating repute of the permanent state. They have learnt to work around these variables. Britain is not one of them. It has counted for centuries on certain things being beyond contest, including the trustworthiness of its judges and bureaucrats.

The recent trend away from this implicit trust is more historic (and ominous) than it would be in, say, France or Italy, which have developed the callouses to withstand such rupture. If the trend continues, Britain will be left with the monarchy and the armed forces as the last unpoliticised givens of public life. That a party with the name Conservative has presided over this just adds a flavour of farce to the tragedy.

If institutions seem more exposed than they have for a while, the Tories themselves have no exemption from the crisis. Their party is so drained of talent and experience that almost anyone can aspire to lead it through sheer lack of competition. The schemers against May are only behaving rationally.

Johnson and Rees-Mogg are intelligent men with achievements to their name that predate their arrival in Westminster (to which the second has contributed as an active parliamentarian, not just a cartoon aristocrat). But neither would vie for stewardship of the party in normal times.

Even in the 1990s, when John Major was as weak a prime minister as May is now, the people queueing up to undermine him were seasoned cabinet members or compelling prodigies. In a hollowed-out party, the minimum expectations for a plausible contender naturally slip.

With his attack on the Treasury, Rees-Mogg is a contributor to institutional atrophy. But he is also its beneficiary. His party – in fact, his nation – has rarely felt so ripe for capture. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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