Because Parliament is in recess most political news has moved into two distinct categories: commentary on reports that were going to come out anyway or political gossip and speculation. One story that is gaining popularity in some parts of the press is the idea of outspoken Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg launching a leadership to replace Theresa May as Tory Party leader. If such a bid was successful Rees-Mogg would also become Prime Minister, the third of which in two years. People began to talk about how ‘funny’ the idea of a Rees-Mogg premiership would be but the notion of the MP for North East Somerset becoming Prime Minister should jolt the Left out of any complacency that they may have slipped into after May’s failure to form a majority government at the last election. A side note is that all references to Rees-Mogg’s voting record come from TheyWorkForYou.com.
The public perception of Jacob Rees-Mogg is that he is an overly posh and somewhat harmless man who is self-aware enough to make the occasional joke at his own expense about his knowledge of Latin. This speaks to a part of British society that believes that posh people are so out of the mainstream that they are ignorant of everyday things, but that there is something endearing about such a character. There are two things wrong with this perception. Firstly, such an individual shouldn’t endeavour to run the country, and secondly, this idea does not characterise Jacob Rees-Mogg. Although the North East Somerset MP has only been in politics since 2010, he has strong opinions that firmly place him on the right of the Conservative Party.
In regards to economics he has voted for policies that have benefited the rich at the expense of the poor. He voted to raise VAT, he opposed increasing tax on people earning over £150,000 per year and has voted against a mansion tax on four separate occasions. He has also voted to restrict workers rights by supporting the Trade Union Act. But the evidence that he is more Margaret Thatcher than Benjamin Disraeli comes in the area of corporation tax. There have been 26 votes on the subject whilst he has been in Parliament and has voted to lower the rate of tax on businesses 23 times, and he was absent for the other three votes.
He’s not all full anarcho-capitalist however and has voted for higher taxes on banks and has voted against reducing capital gains tax four times. Further, Rees-Mogg has consistently voted in favour of high-speed rail, thus demonstrating that he’s not philosophically opposed to capital spending by the state. He has also, on some occasions, supported closing loopholes used to avoid tax. It’s a mixed bag but on the whole he has voted in ways that have damaging to ordinary working people.
A related area of policy is Rees-Mogg’s approach to public services. On the NHS, he backed the government’s 2011 reorganisation plans and also supported shifting the burdens of healthcare administration onto GPs. On education he backed the trebling of tuition fees and the abolition of the EMA. In terms of public transport he has repeatedly voted against publicly operated railways and buses and in 2011 backed the privatisation of Royal Mail. In regards to housing, he voted against secure tenancies for life and in January 2016 Rees-Mogg was among the MPs to vote against a Labour motion to make all rented accommodation ‘fit for human habitation’. To change the subject completely, Rees-Mogg is himself a landlord, so make of this information what you will.
People throughout history from Tony Benn to Bob Dylan have said something to the effect that a society can be judged based on how they collectively treat the poorest among them. In this spirit, we can see how Rees-Mogg treats the poorest by looking at his approach to the welfare state. He voted for the Bedroom Tax, he against raising benefits in line with prices and has consistently supported reducing the welfare bill.
A response to this criticism could be that Rees-Mogg has a different economic philosophy and believes that state support for individual kills their motivation to work. If we accept this premise is true, which by the way is a big ‘if’, his votes for other forms of benefits would be more compassionate. This, however, is not the case. He has repeatedly voted to cut benefits for people with serious illnesses and those with disabilities in areas ranging from housing to direct financial support. His approach to welfare policy, much like many other Conservative MPs, has been crass and the consequences of these policies have, in some cases, been deadly.
On social issues Rees-Mogg openly admits that his voting record is rooted in the approach of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result he voted against same-sex marriage for people in the UK as well as recognising the legitimacy of same-sex marriages from other countries. With Justine Greening proposing changes to UK law in regards to transgender people it will be important to highlight how Rees-Mogg votes, especially if he does want to lead the Conservative Party. On human rights more broadly, the North East Somerset MP has voted to repeal the Human Rights Act. In a more specific case, Rees-Mogg voted against outlawing discrimination based on caste, which is a vote that, if about race for example, would have caused a media firestorm but at the time was barely reported.
In regards to constitutional matters, Rees-Mogg is a vocal opponent of any further democratisation of the British political system. He is a staunch monarchist and often opposed the scrutiny of royal finances by the Public Accounts Committee. He also supports the continued existence of the House of Lords and at one point suggested that Theresa May should fill the House of Lords with pro-Brexit members to force through the government’s agenda and in October 2016 voted against removing hereditary peers.
Rees-Mogg has also shown himself to be a staunch advocate of political centralisation. Not only has he refused to support powers being given to local councils, he has consistently opposed attempts to transfer more powers to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly thus making him a firm opponent of devolution. The votes against further devolution have come in a variety of fields, from the responsibility for job centres on one hand to fiscal powers over income tax.
Returning back to Westminster, in 2010 and 2016 he voted to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons which is curious given that he has repeatedly, in my view laudably, championed the cause of backbenchers to hold the government to account. He has also notably voted against lowering the voting age to 16 even though the 2014 Scottish independence referendum illustrated that 16 and 17-year-olds can be enthused members of the electorate. The final noteworthy position that he has is that he defends Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, even though it produces government majorities despite the party of government not receiving a majority of the vote.
However the main reason that Rees-Mogg is being touted as potential successor to Theresa May is because of his views on the European Union. Within the context of the Conservative Party this would place him on the right of the organisation, but its his specific policy positions in this area that should be considered alarming. On his website he openly promoted the notorious and now widely discredited £350 million per week figure and used these fictional resources as a basis for continuing spending in areas like agricultural subsidies. He has also advocated a ‘no deal’ in the event of a bad deal being proposed which, without some form of transitional arrangement in place, would see food and commodity prices sharply increase overnight.
Aside from these initial economic concerns, his approach to some parts of the Brexit process are disgusting. In three highly important Brexit debates, he voted against protecting the rights of EU nationals who are already living in the UK. This is something that only the hardest right-wing Brexit supporters advocate and the fact that he supports it shows that he has successfully externalised these people as ‘Others’. The EU workers that are currently in the UK contribute a huge amount to our society, both in social and economic terms, but for people like Rees-Mogg kicking these people out of the country is necessary under the guise of ‘taking back control’.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has a horrific parliamentary record and, whilst it is tempting to wish him success in becoming Tory Party leader because it may well split the party, this was the same thought process that led some right-wingers used to support Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership. Considering the Jeremy Corbyn could actually become Prime Minister, I don’t want to risk Rees-Mogg being in a similar position. He is clearly not a stupid man so don’t underestimate or dismiss his ambitions.
Conservative Prime Ministers tend to get ousted from within so although policy should be the emphasis of political reporting, this speculation shouldn’t be written off. Any leadership campaign would play to the elderly and more right-wing membership of the Conservative Party and if he wins there is no way that a Rees-Mogg premiership would be anything positive. The gains for many marginalised groups could be rolled back, the UK’s economic approach would be a reheated form of Thatcherism and working people would be at the coal face for another protracted period of time. His voting record must be spread widely so that people don’t fall for the idea him as being charming and harmless.