Jacob Rees-Mogg sits at a mahogany table in his office drinking black coffee from a Spode cup. Across from him sit three aides — laptops out and ears pricked. These days, the Moggster comes with an entourage, and their determination to be present sometimes surprises him. ‘I kept on saying to them on Sunday that they didn’t need to come to the thing in the evening but I think they’re worried about me saying the wrong thing!’
They’d have had good reason to worry. Since his election in 2010, Rees-Mogg has been one of the most quotably outspoken Tory MPs: now he is Leader of the House of Commons, his words carry more weight. He has found himself at the center of a prorogation row involving the Queen and been scolded for reclining on the House of Commons green benches during debates. His near-horizontal slouch was reprinted on the front pages, seized on by those who thought it embodied governmental arrogance (or, as one poster put it, ‘lying Tories’).
He now lists it as his biggest regret. ‘I think it was a mistake to lie down in the Chamber because it was a trivial distraction from serious events.’ The pose itself, he says, is defensible (‘It is very traditional to sit like that’) but ‘one doesn’t want unimportant things to override the great things that this government is doing. So now I’m sitting bolt upright.’ As well he might, with the future of his party, government and country at stake.
Overall Rees-Mogg is enjoying his new view. ‘From the back benches you can throw rocks into the pool and sometimes the rocks create a bit of a wave and sometimes they just go plop.’ he explains. ‘On the inside you can have an influence on how things are happening but I’m very lucky on being on the inside supporting somebody who I greatly support because I think it would be very frustrating if one were doing it for somebody in whom I didn’t have considerable confidence. I haven’t had such confidence in a Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher – I think we’ve got somebody who is full of beans, knows what to do and is getting on with it and therefore being an acolyte around that set up is a very interesting position to be in.’
When we meet on Tuesday evening, Boris Johnson is holed up in No. 10 trying to win over the Democratic Unionist party and some of the more hardline backbench Tory MPs to his Brexit plan. ‘If the prime minister comes back with a deal — and it is still “if” but the signs are very positive — it will be one that is possible to get through parliament.’ And that means support from Northern Ireland. ‘The first stumbling block must be the DUP, mustn’t it?’ says Rees-Mogg. ‘People say, “Do the DUP therefore have the whip hand?” No, it’s not like that. The prime minister is a Unionist. He wouldn’t want to bring forward a deal that wouldn’t work for Unionists.’
Rees-Mogg remains in close contact with his comrades in the European Research Group of Tory MPs, the ‘Spartans’. He tends to avoid their various digital chat groups on the grounds that ‘WhatsApp is a complete nuisance.’ Among them, he puts himself at the lily-livered end of the Euroskeptic scale: ‘I think about 40th is about right for where I was in terms of ERG hardliners.’ Almost all of them, he thinks, would vote for a deal — and in time for the Brexit deadline of October 31. ‘That is the least of our problems,’ he says. ‘If the meaningful vote is carried, the legislation will merely be giving legal effect to an international obligation.’ He goes on: ‘The Benn Act, shows you you can do things very quickly but, perhaps more importantly, we got rid of the King Emperor in 24 hours in 1936, we can get rid of the Imperial yoke of Brussels just as quickly I would expect.’
His optimism is driven, in part, by the idea that everyone is worn down after three years of Brexit debate. ‘Absolutely everybody, including the distinguished readers of The Spectator, wants this matter settled. They don’t want to be talking about it for another year, probably don’t want to be talking about it still at Christmas. Everyone is saying “Just get on with it.” Moderate Remainers and Leavers alike are saying: “For goodness sake, please just finish it off.”’
Hence his optimism that there will not be a second referendum — even if MPs vote for one. ‘A motion of the House does not create new law,’ he says. ‘I think it would be very hard to legislate for a second referendum because it would require a money resolution and why would this government give a money resolution?’ He expects a range of attacks from Remain MPs as the deadline approaches. ‘If you were a Remainer, if you can imagine such a mental affliction, you now have two weeks to try to stop Brexit. You will therefore throw everything at it, absolutely everything, to try and stop it happening, because once it’s happened we will never vote to go back in.’
If the Tories succeed in delivering Brexit, Rees-Mogg would like to see a route back into the party for some of the 21 Tory rebels who lost the whip for voting for the Benn Act. ‘I would be very much in favor of the Tory party remaining a broad church,’ he says. ‘Whether they’ll want to, I don’t know, but there’s no vindictiveness in successful political parties.’ And what would offer them a route back — voting for Johnson’s deal perhaps? ‘Well, let’s wait and see.’
It’s odd to see Rees-Mogg so keen to stay on message: at times, he looks over at his advisers mid-question to check that he has not put his foot in anything. But old habits die hard. He enthuses about Nigel Farage: a ‘brilliant man’ without whom Brexit wouldn’t have happened. The most positive thing he can say about his government’s plan for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is that he is ‘bound by collective responsibility’. He does, though, stress that he is doing his bit for the green agenda with his choice of vehicle. ‘My oldest car is 1936 so all that carbon was done a long, long time ago.’ He reckons driving such cars is better than despoiling the planet’s resources to build new cars. ‘The running of them is less than the carbon inputs to create them. So I am enormously environmentally friendly by driving old Bentleys.’
At the Queen’s Speech on Monday, he invited his nanny — who has taken care of the family’s children since the 1960s — to watch from the visitors’ gallery of the House of Lords. Her reaction? ‘She was absolutely astonished that somebody who she had brought up from the day he was born was involved in this fantastic ceremonial.’ Given that the boy in her care was announcing his political ambitions while still at school, she might not have been so astonished. But if she found herself invited back to witness the UK’s departure from the European Union on time, by October 31, against all the odds? Now that would be something.