Jacob Rees-Mogg is so laid-back, he might as well be horizontal. Partygate has thrown a grenade under No 10, but as far as the Leader of the House of Commons is concerned, everything’s still tickety-boo.
Displaying the casualness that saw him criticised for lounging in the Commons in 2019 (‘That was a mistake,’ he concedes), the 52-year-old appears convinced, like the parent of an unruly toddler, that Downing Street’s woes are just a phase.
“One’s always got to see political problems in context, that actually government always has these squalls, it always has this excitement,” muses the MP for North East Somerset.
Speaking as the Prime Minister awaits the findings of civil servant Sue Gray’s investigation into what Labour has depicted as a seemingly never-ending conga line in and out of No 10 during the pandemic, the cricket enthusiast’s slavish devotion to his Eton and Oxford contemporary is plain to see.
He has repeatedly gone into bat for Johnson, controversially describing Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and the first senior Tory to call for the PM to resign, as a “lightweight”.
This week he sparked a Twitter storm after suggesting “a change of leader requires a general election” in yet another audacious attempt to defend the Prime Minister from a no-confidence vote.
Conservative colleagues could be forgiven for wondering just what has happened to the once outspoken Brexiteer backbencher who appears to have sacrificed his respect for the constitution for the sake of ‘Operation Save Big Dog’.
As we spend 90 minutes chatting in his toasty wood-panelled Commons office, it soon becomes apparent that the Marylebone Cricket Club member sees himself as some sort of political nightwatchman, desperately protecting Johnson’s wicket in the face of a flurry of curve balls.
“I’m a great supporter of his but I wouldn’t say we are close friends,” he insists. “I would say I am a carrier of the flabellum” – which is, the devoted Catholic adds, “the ostrich feather carried in front of the Pope.”
Boris Johnson might have once assumed God-like status in the Conservative Party, but Tories appear to be losing their religion.
Seemingly unbothered by suggestions he is humiliating himself with such a staunch defence of what some regard as the indefensible, Rees-Mogg goes on to sing the Prime Minister’s praises as an “excellent, exceptional leader”, who “unlocked” the country when others refused to do so.
“Churchill always had new ideas. Johnson is good at thinking things others aren’t thinking and not just going along politely with conventional thought,” he says.
That’s certainly one way of putting it.
“I’m not comparing him to Churchill, I’m just saying that the politicians who succeed are the ones with a willingness to make decisions and to then persuade people.
“We saw figures bandied about over what would happen if he didn’t go for another lockdown before Christmas. And he came to the brave conclusion that you could trust British people to make decisions for themselves. I don’t think any other prime minister would have done that.”
Yet Rees-Mogg clearly doesn’t agree with everything the Government is doing, declaring: “I think it’s very interesting that the cut in corporation tax led to a 50 per cent increase in corporation tax revenues.” (The expected raise, from 19 to 23 per cent next year, contravenes what Leavers argued about Britain being more competitive post-Brexit).
He is also vehemently opposed to the proposed 1.25 per cent rise in National Insurance contributions, speaking out against Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s unpopular policy at a Cabinet meeting earlier this month.
Yet instead of offering an opinion on the topic now, he waffles about how “we’ve spent a lot of money on Covid”, before echoing, of all people, Theresa May and her magic money tree.
“The Government has to raise the money that it wants to spend,” he says. “You can’t create money. I think the important thing to remember as a Conservative is that different economic solutions apply in different circumstances.
“Collective responsibility isn’t easy,” he stresses. “I was very lucky not to be offered office by David Cameron or Theresa May because I would have had absolutely no influence within those set-ups.”
Well no, I point out, because he tried to boot Mrs May out of office in November 2018 with an unsuccessful vote of no confidence. The former Prime Minister never recovered and ended up resigning six months later. Do they still speak? “We say hello in the way you do when you bump into people in corridors.”
Little wonder, then, that Rees-Mogg has been described as “the faux toff with a dagger under his top hat”, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why Johnson remains so reliant on his support.
Perhaps their camaraderie also stems from the fact that, like the Prime Minister, the so-called “Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century” has carved out a niche as one of Parliament’s most cartoonish characters, and has been compared to The Beano’s Walter the Softy, with his side-parting, round glasses and “snootiness”.
Double-barrelled he may be, but by his own admission the son of former Times editor and life peer William Rees-Mogg is “nowhere near as posh” as Helena, his wife of 15 years, whom he first met as a child before being reintroduced by his younger sister, Annunziata, in the Noughties.
It was at Bourne Park, the stately home belonging to his mother-in-law, Lady Juliet Tadgell, and under one of her six Van Dycks, that Rees-Mogg proposed to his wife (who stands to inherit the house and priceless art collection). The pair married in front of 650 guests at Canterbury Cathedral in January 2007.
Was it love at first sight?
“We got on well,” says Rees-Mogg, reluctant to elaborate. Yet the speed with which the couple became engaged – within a year of their first date – took Rees-Mogg’s family by surprise, not least after he had declared as a precocious 12-year-old that he would “never get married” because he didn’t want a wife taking his money.
Cringing at the now-notorious 1982 television interview, in which a prepubescent Rees-Mogg, complete with a ‘Love Maggie’ badge, is seen discussing stocks and shares in the back of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, he says: “I’ve never watched it back. But yes I remember being quite worried about divorce.”
Other highlights include Rees-Mogg – who graduated from Trinity College, Oxford, and went on to set up Somerset Capital Management (SCM), an investment management firm that has earned him multi-millions – declaring: “I love money!”
He has since distanced himself from SCM, which he co-founded in 2007, now acting as a silent partner with less than 13 per cent in equity in the business, which will reduce to five per cent by 2027.
Estimates suggest he is worth more than £100 million. So how interested is he in money, really?
“Well, I need to be able to afford to pay the bills.” Yes, but does he keep track of his wealth, like Forbes? “Oh, rich lists are all nonsense,” he says, beore adding that he’s “reasonably careful” with his fortune.
For Christmas, he bought Helena a “a little necklace” from fine jewellers J McCarthy Ltd of Westminster, while she gave him “the best present: a bracelet made from the hair of Copenhagen’s mane”. Rees-Mogg spotted the trinket, inscribed with: ‘From the mane of Wellington’s charger, Copenhagen at Waterloo,’ at auction, and apparently told his wife: “If you’re short of a present for me, this is absolutely the thing.” I later discover that it was sold by Bonhams in October for £5,100.
He is somewhat thrown when I ask what he loves most about his wife, a woman he says is “much sportier than me, with a lot more energy.”
“She is the most wonderful mother, which I think is so fundamentally important,” he says. “Because it’s such a symbol of kindness – that willingness to put other people first.”
Annunziata, 42, later tells me: “Helena’s not old-fashioned in the way that Jacob is. Don’t get me wrong: she is very polite, her manners are impeccable, she is the kind of woman who always sends a thank-you card. But where he is old-school, she brings in the 21st century. They’re a normal family, the children have all got devices.”
I quiz Rees-Mogg about his children’s use of technology and find him to be surprisingly relaxed. “The little ones borrow my iPad – not, for the record, a Government one. They’re very keen on Among Us, have you come across it? And Roblox, yes, I think they play that.”
It’s a sign, perhaps, of who really wears the trousers at Gournay Court, their sprawling Jacobean mansion in Somerset (they also have a £5.6 million townhouse near Parliament Square). It was Helena who said they would not be adding to their Waltons-esque family following the birth of their sixth child, aptly named Sixtus, in 2017. “I’m done,” she said at the Tory Party Conference a year later. “I’ve told him there will be no Septimus and no Octopus. I’ve had enough – I’m 40. He wants more but it’s easy for him to say.”
Peter, 14, who shares his father’s penchant for Savile Row suits, is often spotted on the campaign trail while Mary, 13, is “mad about horses”. Both Thomas, 11, and Anselm, nine, are keen cricket fans, regularly accompanying their father to Lords. While Alfred, five, spent most of Christmas beating Daddy at Monopoly.
In 2017, long-standing Labour MP Harriet Harman described Rees-Mogg as a “deadbeat dad” after he revealed that he’d never changed a nappy. He was similarly ridiculed for going leafleting with his own nanny Veronica Crook, who now helps to look after his children.
Yet he claims something about his ‘unmodern man’ schtick has been lost in translation. “That doesn’t mean that Helena does all these things, very bluntly because I pay other people to do them. I mean, I make no bones about it, we have a very fortunate life.”
Doesn’t that make him a tad out of touch with the average voter?
“I always think there’s a bogusness about assuming that you have to lead exactly the same life as people to understand the life that they lead. I think you can do that by meeting people, by talking to people and by listening to people.
“Did Churchill understand what people thought? Yes, very well. How many nappies did he change?”
I am about to point out that Churchill was born in 1874, when Rees-Mogg adds: “You don’t need to follow a football team to understand what the country is thinking.
“I find these class descriptions quite degrading. It’s a very socialist thing to do, to categorise people. I cannot bear the term ‘ordinary people’. Because there’s no such thing as an ordinary person. The whole plan of God’s creation is that we are individuals.”
Not that the staunch Catholic – who worships in his own private chapel – is puritanical, despite the fact he has never smoked, taken drugs or been “so drunk I don’t remember what I’m saying or doing.”
He’s also a “pushover” when it comes to his children, and the family’s black cocker spaniel, Daisy.
Admitting “they’ve all got Daddy wrapped around their finger,” he says: “I just do meekly what I’m told. But I love spending time with my children. It’s the greatest pleasure and such fun. They’re the only people who laugh at my jokes.”
The family spends Sunday to Friday in London before decamping to West Harptree at the weekends, where as well as breathing in the country air, Rees-Mogg is able to carry out constituency work in the seat he has held since 2010 with a 15,000 majority. He remains close to his mother Gillian, Baroness Rees-Mogg, 82, who lives nearby.
Although the tweed-clad MP might appear the epitome of a country gent, he has never gone shooting or fishing – in fact, until Daisy’s arrival eighteen months ago, he deplored the idea of walking.
“It’s cold and damp – I’d rather read a book. But now I seem to walk the dog endlessly.”
Which brings us neatly back to “Big Dog” and his future in office. Amid much talk of Mr Johnson’s potential successor, Rees-Mogg bats away any suggestion that he would enter the fray: “I’m not by nature ambitious. You must remember that lots of people said this to me before the last leadership. And I supported the Prime Minister because he was then and is now the right person to be doing this.”
In the face of an onslaught of googlies, Rees-Mogg appears determined to carry on swinging right until the moment the stumps fall.