MICHAEL WHITE on the faux aristo with plenty of principles and views… but no policies.
Wrong, wrong, wrong! That’s how my prediction here last week looks after days of unabated turmoil in the Conservative ranks over calls for enfeebled Theresa May to do her duty and resign the premiership so that a real leader can take charge.
And who might that be? Oh, stop being difficult, why can’t you just join in the fun? Even normally sensible pundits like Rachel Sylvester of the Times and Matthew d’Ancona, currently the Guardian’s token Tory moderate, have called on May to put herself out of her misery and the rest of us out of our collective humiliation.
Not that we won’t have more urgent things to worry about if the global stock market collapse gathers speed. Overpriced and overheated, they were mostly running on hope and a prayer, the kind of fragile boom that only a Donald Trump would take credit for. Gadarene investor panic triggered by higher interest rates and higher wages? Sounds OK to me, but there will be downside consequences too.
Alas for Westminster’s micro-plotters, at the weekend the Sunday Times went just that little bit too far and broke the plot’s credibility. The paper’s political editor, Tim Shipman, rascally but resourceful, threatened May with replacement by a ‘dream team’ troika. Yes, PM Boris, Deputy Govey and Chancellor Jake Mogg, two headline-hungry hacks and an investment banker. Just what the country needs in a market meltdown.
What a hoot. Why don’t they all just resign and let that resolute patriot and decisive man of action, Jeremy Corbyn, be summoned to the palace to bite the royal hand. Ah, a problem. Jeremy wouldn’t be allowed to take John McDonnell and Seumas along with him to see the Queen – and they certainly wouldn’t let him go on his own. So much for that idea then.
We’re stuck with the Tories then, at least until 2022 unless Labour gets a better idea, which currently looks unlikely. More precisely, we seem to be stuck with Mrs May, who may well be bland and vacillating, but – as even Liam Fox felt moved to remark during her low-voltage visit to China – she does have resilience.
What’s more, all the sane Conservative MPs, still a clear majority in the party, know they don’t have a better idea. Last week I underestimated their air-headed capacity to go on squabbling while their leader was on an official visit to China, fast emerging as the world’s most important country, even without Donald Trump’s grave-digging presidency.
Have these shadowy MPs no sense of dignity, no shame? The Chinese notice this sort of thing, they will have discounted British importance (and trade prospects) by another few percentage points as a result. Nor will they have forgotten those ‘No dogs or Chinese’ signs in Shanghai parks barely a century ago. They know, too, how fast great empires can decay with poor leadership. Another Chinese naval flotilla passed through the Straits of Dover last week. They’re getting closer.
It can’t be said too often, which is why I repeat it most weeks, that there is no easy solution to May’s feeble leadership, which permeates most aspects of domestic as well as Brexit policy. Why not? Because there is currently no plausible alternative candidate to replace her, let alone one who can reunite his/her warring party behind a Brexit policy, preferably one with a chance of being accepted in Brussels and even of working.
Most of the endless acres of blameless wood pulp devoted to ‘May Must Go’ speculation tiptoe round this void, conspicuous by its absence. TV is more circumspect because it needs pictures, and plotters don’t want to be seen in daylight. Any attempt to address the candidate issue rapidly ends up with ‘Three Musketeers’ scenarios that are hard to type without laughing. It is barely six months since we were last offered the cabinet’s Three Brexiteers: can you honestly remember who they were?
No, what this has really been about is bullying. In fairness it has not been entirely confined to one side. ‘Sack Boris’ is the standard counter-move to ‘Sack Spreadsheet Phil’ and vice-versa, though Boris has done more to deserve it in terms of disloyalty, while not doing the day job he’s paid to do.
Will the bullying do any good in terms of tilting May towards the hard Brexit the Musketeers claim to want? Or towards the soft Brexit in some form of customs cohabitation with the EU 27 – not exactly a marriage, or even (since No 10 spoke on Sunday) a civil partnership, but certainly some action under the duvet?
With Michel ‘Tick Tock’ Barnier paying a visit to warn David ‘Brexit Bulldog’ Davis and May that it’s time to make their minds up – hard Brexit or duvet Brexit – it doesn’t mean they are going to take the hint. Even hints to FT reporters in Brussels that they will retaliate against ‘unfair’ trade does not phase them.
Read some newspapers and you can learn of a new No 10 peace formula every day. One recent cunning plan was reportedly devised to separate Michael Gove from BoJo by proposing a customs union instead of the current one. An indefinite article replacing a definite article seems a suitably dismissive way to treat the foreign secretary. But the idea seemed to quickly die, as they usually do.
Two developments already visible last week have since acquired greater focus, neither of them much to anyone’s credit. One is personal, the cult of Jacob Rees-Mogg growing stronger now that Johnson is viewed more clearly as the empty, self-promoting vessel he has long been. Rees-Mogg is man of the moment if we believe May is about to be toppled rather than merely bullied.
Actually, we don’t believe it, nor that he will be chancellor either. But his ascendancy from marginalised, backbench eccentric to leader-in-waiting is extraordinary, evidence of a strange yearning among British voters for an authentic ‘man of principle’ to govern the nation’s affairs. Though it pains both sides to say so, Mogg is the Tory Jeremy Corbyn, his famous principles even more barnacle-encrusted than the Labour leader’s world view.
The other day ex-MP and Times columnist, Matthew Parris, borrowed from novelist Robert Harris the excellent joke that Mogg is ‘a barmaid’s idea of a gentleman’. Actually Parris protested that this was unfair to barmaids who ‘see through men more easily than the eager young Tory boys of the ConservativeHome website’.
That point was edited out by the hate brigade of course, so Parris was mobbed for a snob on Twitter, not least by barmaids. It prompted me to make inquiries of my own into the Rees-Moggs, routinely described in newspapers which should know better (but no longer do) as aristocratic. That is not so and prompts one of my grander friends to dismiss Mogg’s elaborate style as ‘very nouveau, a faux gent’.
Reference books quickly reveal that Richard Mogg (1690-1729) purchased the medieval manor of Cholwell in Somerset in 1726 and that by 1805 the family’s heiress, Mary Mogg Wooldridge, had married a Welshman, called John Rees who doubled up their names and coats of arms. The couple’s son, William Rees-Mogg, pulled down Cholwell in 1855 and rebuilt, as upwardly-mobile Victorians did. Minor gentry on the make, vicars, farmers, soldiers, sheriffs of Somerset, a familiar story to readers of Trollope novels.
Jacob’s own father, another William Rees-Mogg (1928-2012), was editor of the Times and much else, a great quangocrat who married his secretary and ended up in the House of Lords. Cholwell had long been sold, the Moggs had become Catholic – William’s mother was an Irish-American, a Catholic and (Heaven forbid!) an actress.
Another friend who worked for William – ‘Mystic Mogg’ to Private Eye – describes him as tolerant and clever, with a sense of humour, though he ended up ‘a frightful bore about Europe’ and lost a court case on the constitutionality of some EU treaty in old age. I met him once or twice at the frightful bore stage and took to calling him Bill in print as a tease. ‘William was a truthful person,’ says my pal, who added that his son was less so.
I mention all this because JR-M’s popularity among Tory activists – mostly elderly, white and male, those that are left (70,000?) – offers a remarkable insight into the nostalgic place where many of our fellow citizens find most comfort. It is tempting to laugh, but we should not. ‘He sticks to his principles’ they tell me on Twitter (others say the same about Corbyn) and is a man of honour (ditto).
Jacob married well, to heiress Helena de Chair (how grand is that?), child of the fourth marriage of a swash-buckling writer and MP. He has even bought a house near Cholwell, close to other family members in his Somerset constituency. Gournay Court stands on the site of the home of Sir Thomas de Gournay, reputed to have murdered Edward II with that red-hot poker. It is a crime for which the current owner, young Jake, cannot be held responsible, but it adds to his charisma by proxy.
My posh Old Etonian pal isn’t having any of that. ‘True blue bloods were always rather lovable yobs, like mongrels, ‘ he explains. ‘Would-be grandees accumulated behavioural traits they had read about in PG Wodehouse. Jacob doesn’t get noblesse oblige, an ethical system destroyed by Thatcher. His clothes are issued by a theatrical costumer, his children’s names a pale imitation of Evelyn Waugh.’
Stop, stop!! Why do I bother to mention all this? Because as chairman of the European Research Group (not European and not much research) and member of a Commons committee Mogg is finally getting slightly important. It is becoming better known that he has strong social views, anti abortion, gay marriage and so on, but insists that while he obeys the Pope, not the whips, he does not expect the law to change.
That is handily convenient, but also Corbynista. Jake has values and views, but very few policies. Policies are for practical politicians who want to get things done, not to strike poses. Rees-Mogg remains a partner in Somerset Capital Management, which invests (cautiously, he told the Spectator) a portfolio of more than £7 billion. So SCM will have taken a pasting this week, but it is unlikely to much affect the £12,000 a month the MP still draws from it when he next votes to curb welfare.
So we are talking proper money here. Does it matter if it provides a politician with the independence to be his own man and speak his/her mind? Michael Heseltine would say ‘No’. But Hezza was/is an entrepreneur, a forward-facing can-do man in government, not a social reactionary and investment banker with a calculated line in fogeyism.
Until Mogg gets real – if he ever does – the week’s more important development has been the attacks, Chancellor-in-Waiting Mogg to the fore, made with growing intensity on the civil service, its competence as well as it professionalism. Lord Nigel ‘No Cliff’ Lawson weighed in again. More temperately, so did Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Commons public administration committee, always eager to punch above his weight.
Whatever our personal instincts here – mine are sympathetic to mandarins stuck with the Brexit shambles – I think we have to draw back from them a little. As the battle in Washington DC demonstrates – those Trump-bashing texts sent by an FBI official – civil servants have personal views, views they are meant to keep out of their daily work, which is to implement policies set out by the elected government.
That is not always easy. Great departments of state have a collective view and memory, policies even, not always easy to shift. On Budget Day I often hear ‘I see they’ve sold that useless money-raising scheme to a chancellor at last, they’ve been trying for years’. And Jenkin is surely right to remind us how the Treasury mandarins resisted the Thatcher/Howe budget medicine in 1981. Whether they were right or not is a more delicate matter.
So Brexit is twofold tricky. Firstly because Whitehall, wary of joining the common market in 1973, has since become accustomed to EU membership and practices. It always has other more urgent worries.
It instinctively ducks rigorous new ways of tackling old problems. All anecdotal evidence suggests that most senior officials will privately have voted Remain on June 23. That does not mean they won’t be trying to find remedies to the challenges which Brexit’s narrow win posed. After all, they have to live here too.
Enter, stage right, the second difficulty. Without strong political direction it is hard to evolve viable policies, especially when most of the empirical evidence points one way: on trade patterns, shortages of NHS doctors (reportedly now being turned away under non-EU caps?) or fruit pickers, student numbers and those elusive technical fixes to a border-free Ireland.
Hence last week’s row over the leak to BuzzFeed of the three economic scenarios, ranging from weaker growth (a 2% loss of potential growth) to much weaker (8%) under various Brexit scenarios. For hard Brexit advocates like Rees-Mogg it is an article of faith – key word – that pure free trade will deliver benefits that outweigh the loss of farm or manufacturing jobs. Economists get things wrong, don’t they? Well, yes, they do, but it can sometimes be just a matter of timing. That ‘Brexit recession’? Well, we haven’t left yet.
So I’m not sure it was wise of so many senior ex-mandarins to pile in to defend their successors after Rees-Mogg refused to back down over an inaccurate briefing to DExEU minister, Steve Baker. Instead he upped the ante by accusing the Treasury of ‘fiddling the figures’. Lord Gus O’Donnell replied that it is ‘completely crazy’ to accuse the Treasury of sabotaging Brexit. Alas, he spoiled the effect by adding: ‘Of course, if you are selling snake oil you don’t like the idea of experts testing your product.’
Ouch. A second ex-cabinet secretary, Lord Robin Butler, accused Brexits of trying to intimidate the civil service, while a third, Lord Andrew Turnbull, likened Brexit strategy to the ‘stab in the back’ myth embraced by Hitler to explain why German armies were not really beaten (oh yes, they were) in 1918, merely betrayed by civilian politicians. It is the scapegoat technique.
Another Treasury mandarin, Lord Nick Macpherson, reminded Brexiteers more gently that they hadn’t complained in 2005 when many of the same officials provided Gordon Brown with the evidence to keep sterling out of the euro.
I have some sympathy with Turnbull’s suspicion, as the ‘Enemies of the People’ Daily Mail does not. But I sometimes wish the wise would keep divisive rebuttals to themselves or couch them in more emollient terms, lest the Mail use them to whip up more ‘Nazi Slur’ anger. By the same token, the retiring German ambassador’s complaint to the Guardian, that Brits are too fixated on the heroism of 1940 was true, but unhelpful. It also reminds us why Germans prefer to forget 1940 and why they remain coy about their growing dominance of EU institutions.
Which brings us back to Jacob Rees-Mogg and last week’s Battle of Bristol where 10 militant students – a ‘horde’ according to Tory HQ – disrupted the MP’s meeting. Harsh charges were levelled against the tattooed chief culprit, which prompted investigation into the man who had apparently come to the MP’s rescue. It seems he once wore an SS uniform to a party.
Oh dear, do we want to live in a society where this sort of tit-for-tat goes on? But social media dab-hand, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is part of it, however much he pretends to be above the vulgar sway.