© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Can Britain's Eccentric Rees-Mogg Become The Conservative Party's New Leader?

Conservative Party politician Jacob Rees-Mogg stands in the garden of his mansion in the west of England. Known for his posh, upper-class traits, Rees-Mogg has become an unlikely hit on social media.
Frank Langfitt

Jacob Rees-Mogg set a record for the longest word spoken in the British Parliament in 2012. The Conservative Party lawmaker aimed this hifalutin insult at the European Court of Justice:

"Let me indulge in the floccinaucinihilipilificationof judges of the European Union," said Rees-Mogg, as he stood in the House of Commons wearing a gray double-breasted suit. Then he quoted from the Old Testament.

Rees-Mogg, 48, is the son of a Lord and speaks in a posh accent that sounds like a character out of Downton Abbey. His demeanor seems such a throwback that he's been referred to as "the Honorable Member for the 18th century."

Recently, though, he's developed a cult following on Twitter and Instagram — and some young conservatives want him to make a long-shot bid to lead the ruling Conservative, or Tory, Party.

As a write-in candidate, Rees-Mogg got the second-highest number of votes this month in a poll run by a right-wing blog on who should lead the party. He even beat Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Earlier this month, he made the rounds with British newspapers, espousing his conservative views while playing down any ambitions.

Why the growing interest in a politician who can seem like a parody of a "toff," an old-fashioned, upper-class gentlemen?

There seem to be several reasons.

Political analysts say the Tory Party is looking for fresh faces after a disastrous election in June that saw the party lose its majority and Prime Minister Theresa May crippled.

Rees-Mogg supporters — who include a surprising number of young people — say he has struck a chord at a time of political uncertainty. As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union — a process known as Brexit — many voters have lost faith in establishment politics.

Anne Sutherland, a 27-year-old Rees-Mogg fan from Scotland, says the parliamentarian exudes a quality most politicians lack these days: authenticity.

"I like the fact that he's true to who he is and he's not changing his look or his attitude or his policies just because it might not please someone," said Sutherland, who helped set up a , supporting him to run for leadership of the Conservative Party and become prime minister.

"Maybe because of Brexit, people are looking to what it means to be truly British," she said.

Steven Fielding, who teaches British political history at the University of Nottingham, says Rees-Mogg's popularity also reflects a desire for stability at a time when the country's political landscape is topsy-turvy.

"He's a figure of certainty in a political world where things are in flux," said Fielding. "I think some people find that extremely compelling and attractive."

Rees-Mogg lives in a nine-bedroom mansion in the tiny English village of West Harptree, about a three-hour drive west of London. He represents a diverse constituency that includes former coalfields as well as affluent suburbs of Bristol and Bath, cities in England's southwest.

His wife Helena wrote for an oil industry trade magazine and comes from an aristocratic background. Her father was a member of Parliament and her mother the heiress to a land fortune and a race-horse breeder.

The British press has documented his many posh traits. On a recent visit, I checked stories I'd read about him as we strolled through his walled English garden.

Had he indeed taken his nanny on the campaign trail?

"Well, Nanny is part of the family," said Rees-Mogg, who has campaigned with his young children. (He has six; the youngest is named Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher).

Did he also drive a Bentley during the campaign?

Not true, he says: "I drove my mother's old Mercedes."

Rees-Mogg also acknowledged that he has never changed a diaper.

"I don't think Nanny would think I would do it properly," he said. "Nanny is most protective of her charges."

If Rees-Mogg sounds stuffy, he's not. Regulars at his local pub, the Crown Inn, have nothing but kind things to say. They describe him as a personable and responsive representative who pops in now and then for simple pub grub.

The lawmaker is also adept at poking fun at his own image. His first tweet was in Latin. " Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis," he tweeted: The times change, and we change with them.

Rees-Mogg, who is well to the right on the political spectrum, developed an interest in politics through his father, William, who edited the Times of London. He is a Catholic who opposes same-sex marriage and wants to leave the European Union to give Britain's Parliament more control over making laws.

He is also the co-founder of a wealth management company, and — as you might expect — favors lower taxes.

"Because it's your money to start with," Rees-Mogg said. "In my view, you will spend your money better than I can spend it for you."

Rees-Mogg thinks one reason more people are paying attention to him is because of his clear political convictions. He believes voters have lost their taste for the slick, centrist politicians of the past, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

"People are now looking, perhaps, back more to where Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were leaders," said Rees-Mogg. Today, he said, politicians "have to believe in something, they have to be driven by something."

Rees-Mogg's firm beliefs are what worry his many critics.

Writing in Britain's Guardian newspaper this week, left-wing columnist Polly Toynbee called Rees-Mogg "the next comedy headliner, plugging reactionary policies with disarmingly merry displays of faux self-deprecation."

Michael Segalov, news editor at London's , which covers radical culture, is disturbed by Rees-Mogg's position on issues such as climate change. Rees-Mogg has said he would rather use engineering to adapt to rising sea levels than limit energy consumption.

"If he were to be elected prime minister, I think it would be disastrous," said Segalov. "Let's not kid ourselves. The views he holds are regressive."

The bookmaker Paddy Power gives Rees-Mogg 6 to 1 oddsto replace May atop the Conservative party.

That assessment seems generous — he's just an ordinary member of parliament with no Cabinet experience. But in the United Kingdom — as in the United States — voters have been unpredictable and have shown a taste for the unconventional. And this favors candidates like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.