Jacob's Ladder: Will Jacob Rees-Mogg reach the top?
Jacob Rees-Mogg talks to Lorna Donlon about reconciling Catholicism and Consevatism
The light dapples on the grumpy waters of the River Thames and Jacob Rees-Mogg MP and I are nudging towards the end of afternoon tea alongside a terrace in the Houses of Parliament, when I raise the question of the leadership of the Conservative Party. In a matter of seconds the man nicknamed “the honourable member for the 18th century” unfurls from his chair and springs into action in the most contemporary of fashions: a smartphone is excavated from his pocket and a brief silence ensues as he scans his screen to clarify the issue that has sparked his curiosity.
“Well, you know I am eligible to be pope,” he pronounces in a jocular tone. “All Catholic males are eligible to be pope if the Holy Ghost so decides … now who was the last one to be elected from outside of the College of Cardinals? Let me look it up.” The search complete, he announces it was Urban VI, whose papacy triggered the Western Schism in 1378. The project, reflects Rees-Mogg, wasn’t a success. “That’s why they haven’t done it since!” Does he think promotion to the papacy is more likely than him being the next leader of the Conservative Party? “Well, I think it [Rome] would be a much more interesting job.” Before I can explore the prospect of a Rees-Mogg papacy further, we are interrupted by the clanging of a bell and he goes to check if he should be elsewhere for a vote in the House of Commons.
Conservativism and Catholicism, Brexit and belief, these are the characteristics that have moulded Rees-Mogg, the man the Conservative Home website, which champions the interests of grassroots Tory members, has identified as the most likely leader to succeed Theresa May in its last four monthly polls of activists.
He believes that the renewed interest in his Catholic faith – triggered by an interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain last September in which he said he disagreed with same-sex marriage and restated his opposition to abortion – has very little to do with him. It has more to do with there “being an interest in the whole person of a politician rather than in just the political bit. If you open up a crack as to what you are like beyond the day-to-day political issues, I think there is interest in that. And I think that is true of all politicians.” But perhaps, he adds, there is also a desire to think about religious issues, that it’s a subject that interests people and “provides a conduit” to that awareness.
Rees-Mogg imbibed his Catholicism through his father’s side of the family. He is the son of William Rees-Mogg, the distinguished former editor of The Times, who was a devout Catholic, while the other half of his family, including his mother and his wife, are Anglican. In terms of religious formation, he says he never had any doubts about his faith; his father was a “very important influence, as his mother had been on him”.
Another factor was the realisation that, growing up, he was part of a minority. “It’s actually quite reassuring being part of a minority. It can make the belief seem more important and, in a sense, special … so both at prep school and then at Eton being Catholic was a minority activity and therefore it was perhaps more interesting.” For the young Rees-Mogg, the sense that he was taking a divergent path reinforced his belief, because “if you are doing something different you need to have a confidence that it is important”.
The essence of his Catholicism, he explains, is, as St Paul says, the Resurrection. “And once you can believe in the Resurrection, all the rest of it follows. If this great miracle truly happened … then we have a very clear link back to God. And if Christ can rise from the dead, then he can turn water into wine and he can guide the Holy Father and so on, and all the other things in the Church become much easier to fit in; they are not of themselves exceptional because the great exceptionality is the Resurrection.”
Like many Catholics, including Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II, Rees-Mogg finds that devotion to Our Lady is a very important part of the Church’s teaching and he says the Rosary each day. “I think the Mother of God as our great Intercessor is a very powerful thought.”
It was once reported that he had a Tridentine Mass at his wedding to Helena de Chair in Canterbury Cathedral, and while this is not actually true, he is a fan of the Tridentine Rite. There is much to be recommended about the Extraordinary Form, he affirms, in terms of the richness and constancy of the canon. When possible, he goes to the Tridentine Mass when it is conducted near his home in Somerset, at Downside Abbey.
“There’s a richness and contemplativeness to the Extraordinary Form which I value,” he says. “It is much fuller in a way, whereas the new Rite has been simplified … and there is nothing wrong with that, it’s perfectly valid and of equal sacramental worth.” The use of Latin is another powerful attraction, as it emphasises the “Catholicity of the Church”, and he suggests the move to the vernacular came at “exactly the wrong time”.
These are intense times for the arch-conservative MP, who is at the epicentre of Westminster’s most unlikely and unexpected political cult. He is impeccably dressed in a navy double-breasted suit, a sort of fogeyish Harry Potter with a polished charm and self-deprecating humour. Now aged 49, he proceeded from Eton to Trinity College, Oxford, and made his fortune as an investment banker before moving into politics.
First elected to represent North East Somerset – which he describes as “God’s own part of God’s own county” – in 2010, he has emerged as a possible future Tory leader in the aftermath of Brexit and May’s disastrous general election performance in 2017. Last summer he became the focus of “Moggmania”, a social media campaign by ardent devotees that catapulted him from the relative obscurity of the backbenches into the public glare. Now he heads the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs, and has repeatedly insisted that the hard Brexit MPs will not be backing down.
The media, as well as the political classes, have been taking note of this polarising figure. A New Statesman profile earlier this year christened him the “Polite Extremist”, observing that he was “marinated from birth in English history and tradition”. The Times commentator and former Tory MP Matthew Parris wrote: “For the 21st century Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock.” Rees-Mogg bats these criticisms away in a warm, aristocratic drawl. They are, he says, “a good sign. I think when your opponents resort to abuse, then you must be doing something right”.
His Brexit views aside, he has been the subject of ferocious criticism for what critics would call his social conservatism. On Good Morning Britain he said he was “completely opposed” to abortion – including in cases of rape or incest – as he was a Catholic and “takes the teachings of the Catholic Church seriously”. Reflecting on the issue now, he says that some Catholics have asked him why he does not campaign to change the current law, which permits terminations up to 24 weeks in Britain.
“In a way, the law is secondary because what is needed is for a societal view to be one way or the other about abortion,” he says. “The law comes because of that, it doesn’t create it. And so what the Church needs to do is make the argument about the importance of life, and if people come to recognise that there were two lives rather than one, then you might find that society’s view changes.” Until that happens, he reasons, there is no point in changing the law and “that is where the Church is so instrumental in putting the case about the second life”.
He is equally forthright on end-of-life issues, arguing that for adults there can be cases where you are entitled to refuse treatment “but you are not entitled to ask someone to kill you”. The case of Alfie Evans, the 23-month-old boy from Liverpool who died from a degenerative brain condition after the courts ruled that doctors could withdraw life support, draws his ire. The boy’s parents fought a long legal battle and wanted to take him to the Vatican-linked Bambino Gesù Hospital in Rome. Rees-Mogg, who has six children, believes that the “law was very heavy-handed” in denying the child’s parents the right to seek other treatment in another “genuine hospital”.
He argues that “while it is reasonable for doctors to say there is nothing more we can do, what I think is harder to argue is that they should then say to parents, I don’t think you should take your child to see any other doctor”. He would like to see a review of the law “so the assumption is that the parents have the best interest of the child at heart unless it can be shown otherwise, rather than the law deciding what the child’s best interests are”.
On his papal preferences, he is diplomatic. The Church has been “enormously fortunate” in its last three popes, he says. “You had Pope John Paul II, who took Catholicism to the world and helped rescue it from the atheistic creed of communism, in which he played a very important role. You had Pope Benedict, who ensured that liturgically and theologically the Church was in good working order. And Pope Francis has come along and reminded us that God will pretty much forgive you whatever you do because that’s what God does … I think he has emphasised mercy in a very attractive way”.
With a month until the next meeting of the European Council, at which the UK and the EU are due to review progress towards their separation, how does Rees-Mogg position himself in the history of Brexit? He is, he declares, just one of the “foot soldiers” in terms of getting Brexit through. “I’m a hoplite. We will get there in the end. It was the biggest democratic vote in the nation’s history. It can’t be ignored or pushed under the carpet … It will be implemented, as that is what the nation wants.”
The question of the Irish border will be centre stage at that meeting, yet the Tory grandee Lord (Chris) Patten has warned the Brexiteers of the dangers of “blundering into the politics of Northern Ireland” and the impact of a “clueless” and “delinquent” policy. While he has never been to the border, Rees-Mogg says that Patten’s comments should be viewed through the lens of someone “who is determined to keep the UK in the EU. This is his whole political focus and he will use any tool that he can find to try to do that.”
How does Rees-Mogg reconcile his faith with his politics? He says he does not believe that as a politician you should “manage” your faith; better to simply answer questions when asked. The “differential” between the clergy and the laity is, he says, like that between the martyrs John Fisher and Thomas More. “John Fisher would absolutely go out of his way to be martyred, as he’s a bishop and has got to set an example. And Thomas More goes out of his way not be martyred … but he won’t say something he doesn’t believe to be true.
“So I think if you’re asked a direct question, you have to do your best to answer it. But it is not my job to go up and down the country on a mule preaching on every street corner.”