In mid-May, the Spectator approached Jacob Rees-Mogg for an interview, but was turned down. Theresa May’s government was then enmeshed in controversy over plans for a post-Brexit customs’ union—the preliminary scene, as it turned out, for the drama of last Friday’s Chequers’ statement and the resignations that ensued. Rees-Mogg seems to have wanted to keep his plans to himself when it came to the British press. Still, the bespectacled backbench Brexiteer did think it safe to grant an extensive interview to The Weekly Standard of Washington, DC.
He talked about the weakness of Theresa May’s parliamentary position—‘The government is in a narrow position and is at risk of losing’—and about the folly of her approach to Brexit negotiations: ‘It was a huge mistake to allow the EU to set the timetable before we’d settled the trade. What are we buying for this money? We’re giving them £40bn for nothing.’ He also talked about his ambitions for high office—ambitions that he continues to disavow.
‘I’m just a backbench Tory MP, one of many,’ he insisted to me when we met at his office in the Palace of Westminster. ‘My political ambition revolves around Brexit being delivered. I will support the government in doing that, which I believe is overwhelmingly in the country’s best interest. And that is the limit of my ambition. I’m very unworried about personal ambition. I’ve been elected to office for North East Somerset.’
He would say that, wouldn’t he? Everyone, even Boris Johnson, denies their ambition until they make their play for office. Last August, Ted Malloch, the American academic and friend of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, told the Telegraph that Rees-Mogg had ‘indicated that he would like to be considered for the leadership when the time comes’—if not now, then at ‘some point in the future.’ Anonymous ‘friends’ confirmed that Rees-Mogg was giving ‘careful consideration’ to what he might do if Theresa May were to lose power.
That time might now have arrived. The Chequers’ program is a non-starter, and May’s government is fatally weakened. Rees-Mogg might be a backbencher, but he chairs the European Research Group and is the increasingly popular public face of the impenitent and impatient Leavers. On Monday night’s Newsnight, Rees-Mogg gave May a choice between going back to the Brexit positions of her Lancaster House speech, or trying to force the Chequers’ deal through with the help of Labour votes. If she took the latter course, he threatened a backbench rebellion of ‘fifty to one hundred votes’.
Disavowals aside, Rees-Mogg is already thinking about what he would do if he obtained one of the Great Offices of State. He is also thinking about policies for one of the lesser offices. Perhaps he has even joined the two reflections, and imagined what he would do as prime minister.
What, I asked, would he do if he became Home Secretary in a post-May Conservative government?
Rees-Mogg laughed with customary modesty, then savaged the culture and policies of the Home Office. ‘What ought the Home Office do? What should the priorities be? The priority for the Home Office should be to have an immigration system that actually works. This means checking people in and out. It should have a visa system that is functional, and that means ensuring that we get the people in who we want.’
‘Last month, we’d reached a hundred doctors, and that was the limit of the skilled visas. There are another hundred doctors that we wanted, but we couldn’t let them in. It’s mad to have an immigration system that doesn’t allow people in who you actually need, and does allow people in who you don’t need. So you need to work out what you actually want from your immigration system.’
‘Most importantly, you also need to make it a human system. Of all the departments that we deal with, the Home Office is the most bureaucratic, the least likely to say, “We’ve made a mistake, we’ll try to put it right.” DWP, HMRC and everybody else are a bit more human, and tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. You never get that with the Home Office. The Home Office needs that element of discretion, of humanity, to make people think that it’s a good system.’
Isn’t the problem bigger than the dysfunction of the Home Office? The voters don’t trust their elected representatives, and they trust the unelected bureaucrats even less.
Rees-Mogg accuses the Cameron and May governments of having failed the British people, and in ways familiar from the Blair and Brown governments. ‘What we’ve done in the last ten to twenty years is to take decisions from politicians and give them to increasingly to nominally independent bodies—the quangos, the agencies.’
He wants to return power to the people, and to win back voters’ trust, through ‘popular policies, not populist policies’. Democratic accountability is essential. ‘The people who are actually the best at applying discretion are politicians, because they’re the ones who get the letter from the constituent saying, “This seems very unfair.” It’s quite hard to give that authority to an administrator, because then it becomes arbitrary. But you need to trust your politicians to be responsive.’
The cost of living in London is a prime example of unresponsive politicians and broken trust. Politicians have profited from the rise in house prices, but have done little to stop ordinary workers and families being squeezed out of the capital. The Conservatives seem more sensitive to Nimbyism in Home Counties’ constituencies like Theresa May’s Maidenhead than to the frustrations of commuters and taxpayers. Rees-Mogg has his directive to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government ready to go.
‘You build more houses.’ Upwards or sideways? ‘Sideways. People don’t want to live otherwise, and never have done. In opinion surveys going back to the 1940s, 3 per cent of people say they want to live in tower blocks, and the rest want to live in houses with gardens. So you revisit the Green Belt.’
Philip Hammond included plans for limited building on land near railway stations in last November’s Budget, only for Downing Street to block the proposal. Rees-Mogg agrees with Hammond on that much, if little else. ‘Some of the Green Belt is rubbish,’ he scoffs. ‘You’ve got scrub land round railway stations that you’re not allowed to build on because they’re Green Belt. Well, they’re not, really.’
Rees-Mogg’s leadership of the European Research Group means that he will be one of Theresa May’s executioners, and very possibly her successor’s kingmaker too. He might not secure the crown, but he is planning for high office, and how he could use it to reshape the Conservatives after May and after Brexit. He has no doubt that Brexit will happen, and along lines that he approves. As I leave, I ask Rees-Mogg, a Catholic MP for a Somerset constituency, to name his favorite Evelyn Waugh novel.
‘Scoop,’ he says. ‘It’s such fun.’
Dominic Green is Culture Editor of Spectator USA and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard. For the full version of his interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg, see www.weeklystandard.com.