Jacob Rees-Mogg’s mask keeps slipping. I don’t mean the literal mask he uncharacteristically wore at prime minister’s questions last week. I mean the metaphorical one behind it. It needs new metaphorical elastic because it’s been slipping and then being hastily put back for a couple of years now.
People don’t seem to notice, though, because the mask is so off-putting, like a Hitler mask. Not Hitler, that’s not fair. He’s never worn a Hitler mask. Neither has he, in any broader sense, pretended to be Hitler. As far as we know. If he has, the footage is yet to emerge. He’s much nicer than Hitler. I mean that. He can quote me on it in his campaign literature if he likes. I think he should – it would be funny.
What I mean is that the image Rees-Mogg effortfully projects is deliberately repellent. He presents, for most leftwingers and centrists and also a significant number of fellow Conservatives, a nightmarish vision of Tory privilege. Not Hitler, but still a massive turn-off. He proclaims himself to be a posh, old fashioned, entitled, obsessively religious, weedy, nerdy, rich know-all. Who would disguise themselves as that? So people conclude that it must be what he’s really like.
This is clever because it means that, once they’ve got used to his eerie aesthetic, they start to assume he’s honest. The very fact that he seems not to have bothered to come across as likable starts to come across as trustworthy. And then likable. What they first took to be a contemptuous demeanour gradually morphs into an aura of integrity. These positive feelings are all the more resilient for the fact that Rees-Mogg apparently hasn’t sought them. Unlike most politicians, he hasn’t tried to make people approve of him, so any approval you find yourself experiencing feels more genuine.
My attitude certainly shifted in this way, particularly when comparing him with other members of the government. It became difficult not to feel that there was something more wholesome and decent about Rees-Mogg than, say, Dominic Raab or Grant Shapps or Liz Truss. I found myself tempted into the murky self-defeating realms of: “I may not agree with him but he’s all right really.”
Then, in the autumn of 2019, he was on LBC talking about the Grenfell Tower disaster when something dislodged his mask for a moment. “I think if either of us were in a fire,” he told Nick Ferrari, “whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the commonsense thing to do.” The implication that those killed in the fire lacked common sense for not defying the firm instructions of the emergency services during an emergency caused great offence and led Rees-Mogg to clarify: “What I meant to say is that I would have also listened to the fire brigade’s advice to stay and wait at the time.”
Rees-Mogg puts forward quite extreme positions in such calm and measured tones it’s almost impossible not to fall asleep
Is that what he meant to say? I have no doubt it’s what he wished he’d said, but that’s not the same thing. He’s claiming he meant to say the precise opposite of what he actually said. I reckon he’s lying. Which makes it two slips of the mask: first, revealing a pitiless contempt for people who’ve been killed and, second, showing the standard squirming dishonesty of a politician in trouble. Neither fits the profile of the paternalistic fogey whose heart is in the right place. Suddenly, he’s just a spiteful liar with a creepy manner.
It happened again last week. In response to the startling fact that all five living ex-cabinet secretaries – top civil servants who served every prime minister from Margaret Thatcher to the current incumbent – wrote an open letter calling on Boris Johnson to strengthen the rules governing parliamentarians’ conduct, Rees-Mogg was all scorn. “How many of those went off to take jobs in the private sector? How many of those got quite nice jobs once they’d left being cabinet secretary, well-paid, from merchant banks etcetera etcetera?”
He actually essayed a mild impression of Yul Brynner in The King and I while doing the etceteras, such was his disdain for these former public servants’ gall in seeking further employment after leaving the civil service. I know this because I heard him say it, on episode 68 of The Moggcast, a podcast he does for Conservative Home. It takes the form of Rees-Mogg putting forward quite extreme political positions in such calm and measured tones that it’s almost impossible not to fall asleep.
It’s not reasonable to imply that former civil servants are hypocrites to question MPs for taking second jobs merely because they themselves took other jobs after leaving the civil service. It’s just not a fair comparison and there’s no way he’s stupid enough to believe it is. But throughout the podcast he is deeply sceptical about any institutions reining in MPs’ behaviour apart from “one great, large, independent body that judges whether what is done is right or wrong and that’s the British people”. So it is only to voters, he contends, that MPs and governments should be accountable. For the Tories, that’s a convenient system. Keep 40% of the electorate on side and they’re guaranteed a big majority and can do whatever they want for five years.
Later, though, slipping the mask back on, he piously opined that “this is in many ways a matter of honour as much as of regulation… I think politicians should want to, of their own volition, avoid those grey area conflicts”. But of course! We all think they should want to! But what if they don’t want to? Do we just hope that there are enough voters who hate sleaze more than they love tax breaks to stop a bunch of self-interested crooks commanding 40% of the vote? How do we feel that’s going?
Last week, it emerged that the Commons standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, was investigating Rees-Mogg himself. This apparently relates to £6m that he lent himself from a company he owns in order to do up his Westminster home. He says it’s fine. Labour isn’t so sure. But it’s another mask slip. It’s far too wheeler-dealery for the bumbling aristocratic image. More Philip Green than Lord Grantham. Nadine Dorries says he’s a fuckwit. If only.