His role as Leader of the House of Commons has given Jacob Rees-Mogg ample opportunity to cultivate his persona as a pantomime toff from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, which he has worked on assiduously since his prep school days. And his Conservative colleagues are only too eager to assist the member for North Somerset in this project.
Yesterday, Philip Hollobone, Conservative MP for Kettering, felt it an appropriate use of parliamentary time to ask Rees-Mogg his opinion of Weetabix with baked beans as “an attractive serving suggestion for a healthy meal”. It was certainly an attractive line to be served up to Rees-Mogg, giving him a chance to wax lyrical about his own breakfast preference: “Nanny’s homemade marmalade on toast.”
Just four months previously, both Rees-Mogg and Hollobone had voted against extending free school meals to children in need over the holidays, with Rees-Mogg later attacking Unicef, the UN agency responsible for providing aid to children, for daring to draw attention to the plight of children facing extreme poverty in the UK.
The truth, of course, is that Rees-Mogg is very far from being a harmless eccentric. In 2019, he was central to Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend parliamentary democracy by proroguing Parliament, a move subsequently ruled to be illegal by the Supreme Court. He is also one of several members of Johnson’s cabinet to have combined politics with the ruthless pursuit of personal profit. In fact, his political goals often appear to be intimately connected to his profit-seeking activities.
Take, for instance, the laws to prevent tax avoidance and money laundering, many of them EU laws. The old Etonian financier sees Brexit as a way of avoiding planned new EU regulations aimed at governing the behaviour of companies such as his own investment vehicle, Somerset Capital Management, and is excited by the opportunity that leaving the EU offers to slash environmental and safety laws. His firm is managed via subsidiaries in the tax havens of the Cayman Islands and Singapore, and Rees-Mogg has profited personally from the use of such tax havens. He is also closely connected with Crispin Odey, the hedge fund manager who profited to the tune of £220 million on the night of the referendum and part-funded Rees-Mogg’s election campaign.
But this is not to say that ideology plays no part. Rees-Mogg has documented connections to extreme right-wing ideologues such as Steve Bannon, and has played a key role in the European Research Group (ERG).
Some insight into Rees-Mogg’s mindset may be offered by a 1997 book co-authored by his father, William Rees-Mogg: The Sovereign Individual: The Coming Economic Revolution and How to Survive and Prosper in It. This looked forward eagerly to a dog-eat-dog future in which the welfare state has shrivelled away, the rich pay little or no tax and only “sovereign individuals” are able to prosper. When the interests of these “sovereign individuals” conflict with the interests of the rest of us, it is fairly apparent that, for Rees-Mogg, it is the interests of citizens that should be sacrificed. As Alastair Campbell has commented: “After reading it, it is easy to see why Jacob so loves Brexit, and the chaos and disorder, and opportunities for disaster capitalism and super-elitism, that it may provide.”
On the ideological front, Rees-Mogg has made little secret of his sympathies with the far right, for instance by approvingly sharing material from the leader of Germany’s openly racist Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD), senior figures from which have called for refugees to be shot. Rees-Mogg’s only objection to the AfD seems to be that it is insufficiently anti-EU.
His complete lack of principle was starkly exposed when he said he was prepared to back Theresa May’s Brexit deal, despite having claimed that it would reduce the UK to the condition of “vassalage”. Rees-Mogg, along with Dominic Raab and a number of other senior Tory hard-Brexiters, had previously been trying to pressure May into renegotiating the deal, calling the cabal that they formed to do this the “Grand Wizards” (a title also favoured by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan).
Rees-Mogg’s financial dealings came under scrutiny after it was revealed that his firm has a £60 million stake in Sberbank, a Russian bank closely linked to the Kremlin and sanctioned since 2014 following Putin’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. (Incidentally, Sberbank was also closely involved in the Russian gold and diamond “opportunities” brokered for leading Brexiters Arron Banks and Jim Mellon by agents of Putin’s mafia state.) Curiously – or perhaps not so curiously – Rees-Mogg’s social media presence has been helpfully boosted by the efforts of Russian bots.
While eager to impose the hardest of Brexits on his fellow citizens, Rees-Mogg has taken care to protect his own financial interests. In 2019, it emerged that his firm had set up two funds in Dublin to ensure that it still has access to the European Union after Brexit. Asked by Channel Four News whether it was true that the firm had set aside £7 million for him since the Brexit vote, Rees-Mogg refused to answer and said the Dublin move had “nothing to do with Brexit”.
In many ways, Jacob Rees-Mogg closely resembles Lord Halifax, a leading Conservative appeaser of the Nazis in the 1930s. Like Rees-Mogg, Halifax was an almost parodically old-fashioned Etonian and a passionate supporter of fox-hunting who made much of his religious beliefs (Anglo-Catholic in the case of Halifax, whereas Rees-Mogg is a Catholic).
Halifax was not, however, noted for combining far-right politics with the pursuit of personal profit.
(A version of this piece first appeared on Cabinet of Horrors, a website created by Tom Scott and Molly Scott Cato to draw attention to the danger to democracy represented by the ministers selected for inclusion in Boris Johnson’s first cabinet.)