Some bat­tle-scarred Tories now be­lieve that their party needs its own colour­ful out­sider, its own Cor­byn, to lead them into Brexit – and that that man is the ex­treme rightwinger Ja­cob Rees-Mogg. Tim Adams joined the ‘Mog­g­men­tum’ dis­ci­ples in Manch­ester on

The Observer - The New Review - - COVER STORY -

It is hard to be in Manch­ester, at a Tory party con­fer­ence, with po­lice he­li­copters jud­der­ing over­head and snipers on ho­tel roofs keep­ing an eye on face-painted Re­main­ers, with­out those sem­i­nal lines from the bard of Sal­ford, Dr John Cooper Clarke, run­ning through your head: The bloody cops are bloody keen To bloody keep it bloody clean The bloody chief ’s a bloody swine Who bloody draws a bloody line At bloody fun and bloody games The bloody kids he bloody blames Are nowhere to be bloody found Any­where in chicken town…

The theme of this year’s con­fer­ence – if you left aside the low-bar am­bi­tion of get­ting to Wed­nes­day lunchtime with­out the prime min­is­ter re­ceiv­ing a P45 or croak­ing – was to re­con­nect the party with the as­pi­ra­tions of the na­tion’s youth, “Bri­tain’s dream­ers”. In the terms laid out by Eric Pick­les, in his Dadaist 126-point plan of what went wrong in the last elec­tion, that meant any­one un­der 50.

To this end, in a lit­tle fre­quented cor­ner of the con­fer­ence halls there was a “youth zone”, in which men in suits and women of a cer­tain age de­bated such funky top­ics as “The Econ­omy: Post-chan­cel­lor’s [sic] speech” and “Trans­form­ing Ageing and Lone­li­ness”. There were also the trum­peted pair of tweaks to hous­ing pol­icy and stu­dent debt de­signed to sell the heady idea of cap­i­tal­ism to a gen­er­a­tion with no prospect of cap­i­tal.

If you looked hard in the con­fer­ence halls for the young peo­ple at whom these poli­cies might be aimed, they were mostly dressed like es­tate agents and queu­ing up to see Ja­cob ReesMogg, who has al­ways been 48. My brief in Manch­ester was to try to see the world through the eyes of these young men (and few women), who are cre­at­ing “Mog­g­men­tum”: those par­tic­u­lar dream­ers who be­lieve, out of 65 mil­lion cit­i­zens, that the in­di­vid­ual best equipped to lead our na­tion through the next wave of the dig­i­tal econ­omy, the challenges of cli­mate change and nav­i­gate the nu­ances of a com­plex mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety, is a man who first took to the po­lit­i­cal cam­paign trail with his nanny, who used to pay younger boys at Eton to es­cort him with an um­brella lest it rain and who re­cently con­fessed that if three-piece py­ja­mas were avail­able he would be first in line.

The logic be­hind this be­lief, a logic I hear re­peated like a mantra over four days, is that Rees-Mogg is the clos­est that the Con­ser­va­tive party can cur­rently of­fer to Jeremy Cor­byn. By which they mean he is a man of prin­ci­ple, an “out­sider” in West­min­ster, un­tainted by power and led by con­science.

“Nei­ther Cor­byn nor Rees-Mogg has changed their views, pol­i­tics or them­selves to pla­cate any­one – and that in it­self is re­fresh­ing,” Anne Suther­land, the joint founder of the cam­paign group Ready for Rees-Mogg ar­gues, du­bi­ously, ( given that in Rees-Mogg’s case those views in­clude op­pos­ing abor­tion in any cir­cum­stances in­clud­ing rape, a re­fusal to coun­te­nance same­sex mar­riage and a wel­come to food banks as “rather up­lift­ing”). “He has awak­ened an in­ter­est in con­ser­vatism in the younger gen­er­a­tion, some thing des­per­ately needed, ” Suther­land sug­gests. Over the sum­mer, Rees-Mogg has been neck and neck with Boris John­son in polls of the party mem­bers as to who should be the next party leader and prime min­is­ter, prompt­ing the for­eign sec­re­tary to up his head­line count as lib­er­tar­ian jester-in-chief.

Be­fore I ar­rived in Manch­ester, I spoke to Sam Frost, a 23-year-old from Gilling­ham in Kent, who was in­volved in the dig­i­tal and so­cial me­dia side of the Leave cam­paign dur­ing the ref­er­en­dum and, as the other co-founder of Ready for Rees-Mogg, has now turned those dark arts to the ser­vice of the mem­ber for North­East Som­er­set. Frost ex­plained how the cam­paign was be­ing run with an “Amer­i­can se­na­to­rial strat­egy”: the aim be­ing to col­lect as much sup­port as pos­si­ble to per­suade Rees-Mogg to run in any lead­er­ship elec­tion and, in the mean­time, “cre­ate a pre-cam­paign that could be handed over to him if he should choose to run”. In short or­der, Frost and Suther­land have cre­ated a Face­book page with 11,000 fol­low­ers and a reg­u­lar army of “800 vol­un­teers do­ing var­i­ous bits and bobs”. Their aim is to cre­ate some­thing of a Tory equiv­a­lent of the left­wing Mo­men­tum group.

The prospec­tive can­di­date him­self, Frost ad­mits, is less con­vinced of his chances. When asked about his lead­er­ship as­pi­ra­tions, Rees-Mogg has a stock an­swer: “I think if I threw my hat in the ring, my hat would be thrown back at me pretty quickly.” De­spite this ret­i­cence, Frost be­lieves that the groundswell may be­come un­stop­pable in the event of a lead­er­ship con­test and Rees-Mogg will be forced to take up that hat and do his duty.

Frost had hoped to or­gan­ise a spe­cial Rees-Mogg event at con­fer­ence to ce­ment this strat­egy “but by the time we got go­ing af­ter the elec­tion all the venues had al­ready been booked”.

In Manch­ester, it quickly be­comes clear that lack of pre-plan­ning doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. There are two con­fer­ences go­ing on, one in the main hall, in which gov­ern­ment min­is­ters try to make sure they say noth­ing that no one else hasn’t said in case it is seized on as a sign of dis­loy­alty. At the other, a fringe that wants to ad­vance to­wards the main stage, Cor­byn-like, there is only one star turn.

The main arena im­ple­ments a pol­icy of “pos­i­tive seat­ing” to keep the crowd as gap-free as pos­si­ble for the cam­eras; for any Rees-Mogg event, the crowd starts to snake around the hall an hour be­fore its ad­ver­tised be­gin­ning. And there are many Rees-Mogg events. In fact, how­ever many Rees-Mogg events I go to, ju­di­ciously scan­ning

the small print of the con­fer­ence pro­gramme, I ar­rive to hear men­tions of other Rees-Mogg events that I have ap­par­ently missed. As Tory MP Penny Mor­daunt later ob­serves: “There have been many fine speeches at this year’s con­fer­ence, a cou­ple of them not by Ja­cob Rees-Mogg.”

Ex­cite­ment in Manch­ester is in des­per­ately short sup­ply. On Sun­day, the only song to be heard in the halls is the muted strains of “Oh, Jeremy Cor­byn” from pro­test­ers out­side. The con­fer­ence shop is push­ing as its loss leader a lim­ited-edi­tion vol­ume of David Cameron: Com­pas­sion­ate Con­ser­va­tive. But at least there is one guar­an­teed cor­ner where tribal feel­ings run pre­dictably high. As a ral­ly­ing cry, Rees-Mogg of­fers the con­vic­tion that: “We don’t need to shout. We don’t need to scream. We need calm, con­sid­ered and de­lib­er­a­tive dis­cus­sion and then we can show Con­ser­va­tive ideas and val­ues are best for this na­tion.” His crowd goes wild.

As one Rees-Mogg gath­er­ing fades into the next, there is, too, an al­most chore­ographed sense of events hap­pen­ing around him. The largest au­di­ence he ad­dresses is in the great hall of Manch­ester town hall. As he takes to the podium in Al­fred Water­house’s civic cathe­dral he is fol­lowed to­ward the stage by a small group of vo­cal pro­test­ers. There are scuf­fles and calls for se­cu­rity. At one point, a mus­cu­lar man in a checked shirt finds his “Tories Out!” ban­ner seized by a man in his 60s. Then the two square up in com­i­cal fury as if in some in­ter­net flame war made flesh.

All the while, Rees-Mogg is en­gag­ing, in head­mas­terly fash­ion, with the younger pro­test­ers. A young man in­forms him he is de­spi­ca­ble. “Let’s leave my de­spi­ca­ble­ness aside for one mo­ment and talk about the is­sues,” he says, be­fore re­turn­ing to the podium as the pro­test­ers are ejected to ex­tem­po­rise about free speech.

Later that day, in a fer­vid side room, the crowd parts for Rees-Mogg as he scur­ries to the as­sis­tance of a woman who has fainted in the crush, pro­fer­ring a glass of wa­ter. As news of these heroic deeds spreads by the end of day two, the queues only get longer and the scrum for self­ies when ReesMogg leaves the stage larger. Among the most thought­ful of these dis­ci­ples I speak to is Adam Cor­nett, 18, who is at an FE col­lege in Rochdale, but plans to join the army.

He ex­plains to me his ad­mi­ra­tion for Rees-Mogg in these terms: “If you have some­one like Jeremy Cor­byn lead­ing the Labour party we also need an ec­cen­tric char­ac­ter who can gen­er­ate a huge fan­base. If you check out Ja­cob’s fol­low­ing on­line it’s just mas­sive.”

But aren’t young peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar al­ways go­ing to be put off by ReesMogg’s fun­da­men­tal­ist Catholic views?

Cor­nett thinks not. “No one can deny that Ja­cob speaks his mind. He said what he thinks about abor­tion and same-sex mar­riage, and what­ever you think about what those opin­ions are, I think the most im­por­tant thing is he has the courage to ex­press them. That is what democ­racy is all about.”

Cor­nett would like Rees-Mogg to at least chal­lenge for the lead­er­ship, but is aware that up here “you know we are from the north­ern party and with no dis­re­spect to him, some peo­ple think he was born with a sil­ver spoon in his mouth”. He’s found this makes Rees-Mogg a tough sell with his mates. Ev­ery­thing they think of as youth is not rep­re­sented by Ja­cob Rees-Mogg. But we try… ”

He tries prin­ci­pally for one rea­son. “Since the ref­er­en­dum, work­ing­class peo­ple are feel­ing be­trayed by both par­ties,” he sug­gests. “If 52% of peo­ple feel be­trayed, then we need real change in the par­ties to re­flect that. Ja­cob Rees-Mogg of­fers the Brexit most peo­ple want: straight to the point, leave, no tran­si­tion. He is the man for that job.”

As with Cor­byn, the fact that Rees-Mogg is so ob­vi­ously a fig­ure of ridicule and dis­dain for the op­po­si­tion only strength­ens his ap­peal among the faith­ful. It seems un­likely, even in our sur­real times, that it could project him all the way to power, but if the mem­ber­ship has its way, Mog­g­men­tum will shape the Brexit de­bate. It will, in the ter­mi­nol­ogy Rees-Mogg pushes, re­sult in a “clean Brexit”, a “true

‘We also need an ec­cen­tric char­ac­ter who can gen­er­ate a huge fan­base. Ja­cob’s fol­low­ing on­line is just mas­sive’

Brexit”, a “pure Brexit”. When asked how long he wants any tran­si­tion ar­range­ments to be, Rees-Mogg won­ders whether the an­swer is re­quired in min­utes or sec­onds.

There was a time when Rees-Mogg used to ar­gue for a coali­tion with Ukip and Nigel Farage as deputy prime min­is­ter. Now it seems he is happy to cut out the mid­dle­man. A cou­ple of years be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, I fol­lowed Farage around the shires on his never-end­ing tour of town hall meet­ings. The at­mos­phere he gen­er­ated at those events was pre­cisely the same that Rees-Mogg is able to cre­ate: some well-judged jok­ing and then a scary un­cork­ing of mid­dle-class frus­tra­tions, a whiff of pinstripe anar­chy. As the ref­er­en­dum com­pre­hen­sively proved, you un­der­es­ti­mate the strength of this self­styled out­law feel­ing to your cost.

And like Farage, like Boris, ReesMogg has learned how to play the crowd: switch­ing quickly in reg­is­ter from self- dep­re­ca­tion to jin­go­ism. One of the things his fringe meet­ings re­veal is that there are few more pop­u­lar lines of ar­gu­ment than an ap­peal, in the face of great com­plex­ity, to great sim­plic­ity. It be­haves like a drug on an au­di­ence that hates dif­fi­culty and wants so­lu­tions. Like the rest of the coun­try, these days, Rees-Mogg has only one real sub­ject – Brexit – and only two views of it. The first is that this is ap­par­ently a defin­ing mo­ment for our is­land na­tion. And the sec­ond is that leav­ing the EU re­ally is not nearly as hard as it looks.

On the first point, he of­fers school­mas­terly his­tory lessons in free­dom. I came to Manch­ester imag­in­ing that the con­fer­ence venue was cho­sen be­cause of the am­bi­tions for the north­ern pow­er­house, but in fact its sym­bol­ism seems much more geared to the city of the 1830s and its his­tory as home of the Anti- Corn Law League. Rees-Mogg presents him­self the heir to the league’s co-founder, Richard Cob­den, and the Brex­iters as the new rad­i­cals, cast­ing off the yoke of tar­iff bar­ri­ers (no one seems to want to point out that the UK has just voted to leave the largest free mar­ket in global his­tory).

Later, em­bold­ened by the re­cep­tions he re­ceives, he widens his frame of his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence. By Tues­day, he has reached peak-Blighty. “We need to be re­it­er­at­ing the ben­e­fits of Brexit!” he cries. “Oh, this is so im­por­tant in the his­tory of our coun­try, it’s Magna Carta, it’s the burgesses com­ing at par­lia­ment, it’s the Great Re­form Bill… It’s Water­loo! It’s Crécy! It’s Agin­court! We win all these things!”

“Don’t for­get Trafal­gar!” says a voice from his crowd. “And Trafal­gar, ab­so­lutely!” There is a shout of “Long live Lord Nel­son’s statue!”

“Well, I don’t think Nel­son will be at risk,” Rees-Mogg chuck­les, be­fore ris­ing to his con­clu­sion. “We won, it’s hap­pen­ing! The good cheer we get from the for­eign sec­re­tary is a tonic – nay, a gin and tonic – to our spir­its!”

It’s hard to know who Rees-Mogg be­lieves he is chan­nelling in these per­for­mances. At times, he seems to be aim­ing for the grave ca­dences of an army chap­lain on the eve of bat­tle; else­where, he blinks like Harry Pot­ter and af­fects a boy­ish naivety; some­times, he low­ers his voice and ap­pears to as­pire to the stiff grav­i­tas of an Eden or a Macmil­lan; then there is the de­fault Trol­lope squire. If Don­ald Trump is the poor per­son’s idea of a rich man and a fool­ish per­son’s idea of a clever man, then Rees-Mogg ful­fils a sim­i­lar role for nos­tal­gia lovers.

Most im­por­tantly, his sup­port­ers line up to as­sert that, in the gen­eral sea of de­spond, he gives off “pos­i­tiv­ity”. Lis­ten­ing to var­i­ous speeches at this con­fer­ence, it be­comes clear that for Tories the full lex­i­con of hu­man emo­tion can be hap­pily lo­cated in the Hun­dred Acre Wood. At con­fer­ence, the worst trait you can dis­play is to be Eey­or­ish. Re­moan­ers are Eey­or­ish, the BBC is Eey­or­ish. The chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer, de­spite his best ef­forts at knock­about com­edy, is also a clear this­tle-lover, with his grown-up in­sis­tence that “we must not down­play the dif­fi­cul­ties nor un­der­es­ti­mate the com­plex­i­ties”. Rees-Mogg, like Boris, is sev­eral times re­ferred to by col­leagues as Tig­ger­ish.

The won­der­ful thing about Brexit, Rees-Mogg tells a stand­ing-room only event for the Bruges Group think­tank, is that Brexit is a won­der­ful thing. A clean Brexit, a pure Brexit, will bring free­dom to trade un­der World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion rules. It will raise, he says, speak­ing next to a por­trait of Mar­garet Thatcher, the poor from their penury by lift­ing the duty on “food, cloth­ing and footwear” (it seems be­neath him to ut­ter the word “shoes”). And it will enable Bri­tain’s youth once again to make choices about how to live their lives with­out in­ter­fer­ence (or much as­sis­tance) from the state.

He draws strength in these speeches from those with whom he shares a plat­form: the old sol­dier of Euroscep­tic ne­olib­eral ex­tremes, Bill Cash (mon­e­tarist in both Christian and sur­name), and the un­dead Thatcherite, John Red­mond.

The pu­rity of these mes­sages, their retro mix­ing of free mar­kets and free

There was a time when Rees-Mogg ar­gued for a coali­tion with Ukip. Now it seems he is happy to cut out the mid­dle­man

in­di­vid­u­als plays well – like el­e­ments of Cor­byn’s 1970s so­cial­ism – with peo­ple who have not lived through them in prac­tice. Rees-Mogg is speak­ing the lan­guage of the many pol­i­tics stu­dents in his au­di­ence.

An­gus Gil­lan, part of the Con­ser­va­tive stu­dents’ group at Birm­ing­ham Univer­sity, ex­plains to me that “as a stu­dent of an­cient his­tory, it is nice to hear proper rhetoric in the party. Some­one with pas­sion, clar­ity. The more I have got in­volved with pol­i­tics the more you see the sim­plic­ity of some of the ar­gu­ments.”

For Aaron Gomez of Ex­eter Univer­sity, it’s “all pure logic. We have voted to leave the EU, we have no le­gal obli­ga­tions to them un­der ar­ti­cle 50. I find it a pos­i­tive out­ward-look­ing mes­sage for Bri­tain.”

“Pa­tri­o­tism is a big thing for young peo­ple,” Gil­lan says. “I was ad­mit­tedly a Re­mainer orig­i­nally. I think it now has to be about get­ting the best deal for Bri­tain.”

And can Rees-Mogg do for the Tories what Cor­byn has done for Labour?

“Ja­cob is cool,” Gomez sug­gests. “It is not cool, in my mind, to talk down Bri­tain. To look at Venezuela as a bet­ter so­ci­ety than us. One of the things that Brexit has achieved for my gen­er­a­tion, I think, is that it has come back into fash­ion to love Bri­tain, to love the UK. I hate the idea that peo­ple want Brexit to fail, and to see peo­ple suffer, just so they can say I told you so.”

Gil­lan agrees. “Peo­ple don’t want doom and gloom. I don’t think young peo­ple are be­ing per­suaded by so­cial­ism. Peo­ple who want to make a suc­cess of their lives still see the at­trac­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.

“If we could bot­tle the en­ergy of Brexit,” Gomez says, “that man­aged to get peo­ple to vote for it, against what ev­ery­one was telling them to do. Obama, busi­ness, the me­dia. If we could bot­tle that, which is what Boris and Ja­cob do, there is no way they will not de­stroy Cor­byn next time.”

The route to this, they sug­gest, is to lis­ten more closely to the party. Rees-Mogg, like Cor­byn, know­ing where his power lies, agrees. How the party cur­rently treats its mem­bers “isn’t even Amer­i­can”, he says, “it’s Kim Jong-un-style. If it stays like that for long enough we’re go­ing to be in real trou­ble.” There is a move­ment to shift that rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in the cur­rent vac­uum of lead­er­ship, to re­spond more closely to what the mem­bers want. If that hap­pens, Gomez tells me, “it has to be Ja­cob and Boris”.

By the end of the third day I seem to have caught Theresa May’s cold. Doped on Sudafed, I leave the hall af­ter John­son’s Tig­ger­ish speech to clear my head. Wait­ing in the se­cu­rity line to get back for Rees-Mogg’s vale­dic­tory per­for­mance, I lis­ten to two ac­tivists try­ing to con­vince them­selves the an­swer has to be John­son. They men­tion his two terms as Lon­don mayor; one men­tions the “sci­en­tific proof” that the world loves him. “What’s that?” the other woman asks. “At the Lon­don Olympics, the deci­bel level in sta­dium was higher when Boris waved the union jack than at any other point dur­ing the games. More than Mo Farah. More than Usain Bolt. And that au­di­ence came from across the coun­try and across the world. What does that tell you?” she won­ders.

I re­sist the temp­ta­tion to butt in and sug­gest that it tells me that it is hard to know whether this ring of steel is best em­ployed to keep the rest of the world out or the Con­ser­va­tive party mem­ber­ship in.

Back inside, I join the queue for the “Brexit cen­tral” event that is ReesMogg’s fi­nal out­ing. In at­ten­dance in an­other packed hall – “Wil­lkom­men, bien­v­enue” – are the French and Ger­man am­bas­sadors. As Rees-Mogg goes through his Brexit sta­tions of the cross, the corn laws and Crécy and the el­e­gance of WTO rules and the clinch­ing ar­gu­ment of how the poor will be lifted from their penury by the re­moval of global tar­iffs on their footwear, I try to imag­ine what ex­actly might be go­ing through the heads of those am­bas­sadors, how they might re­port back the strange fever dream they’ve wit­nessed.

In a room of 600 peo­ple it is fair to say that they are not among those who are in­clined to join with Rees-Mogg’s clos­ing evan­ge­list’s ex­hor­ta­tion to “lift up thine eyes to the sun­lit hills” of Bri­tain’s glo­ri­ous free­trad­ing fu­ture. “Come on!” Rees-Mogg cries. “Now is not the time to be cry­ing into our soup!” To be hon­est, in that mo­ment, it’s quite tricky to see an­other cred­i­ble op­tion.

Pho­to­graphs by Matt Crossick/Empics En­ter­tain­ment; Joel Good­man/Lon­don News and Pic­tures

Ja­cob Rees-Mogg fac­ing pro­test­ers at a Con­ser­va­tive party fringe meet­ing at Manch­ester town hall last week. Be­low left in­set: ad­dress­ing the meet­ing.

Pho­to­graphs by Bill Cross/Rex, Dan Kit­wood/ Getty

Ja­cob Rees-Mogg, aged 12 in 1981. Be­low: with Nigel Farage last year.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.