My heart was thumping as I climbed the marble stairs to the Gladstone Room. The Union debate ‘This house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ had been a good one. Many thought that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Old Librarian of the same institution and backbench Conservative MP, had delivered a cracker.
Indeed he had. On answering a particularly aggressive point from the gallery – they always are from the gallery – Rees-Mogg raised a deafening cheer from the House when he inquired as to whether the lurking gallery inhabitant had recently checked the Office of National Statistics, which he claimed all self-respecting Oxonians should, and on receiving the negative dismissed the point assuming that its owner must be “a Cambridge man”.
Our eyes met across a crowded room. We were introduced. Rees-Mogg, wearing an immaculate double-breasted dinner jacket with gleaming beribboned dress shoes, looked like a Kingsman. We shook hands and shuffled into a corner; fumbling for my leaky biro I stuttered the first question: “As a somewhat rebellious backbencher with a natty dress-sense, do you in any way associate with James Dean?”
He laughed and informed me, much to my annoyance, that his local paper, The Somerset Country Gazette, had asked him this before. He responded swiftly: “You must remember that James Dean was enormously cool, and I am not.” Undeterred, I followed up the second part of this question, did Rees-Mogg see himself as a bit of a rebel? Raising his eyes, he looked at me over his spectacles, smiled politely, and replied in the negative – as all rebels should.
Given his careful answers, I decided it was time to change tack, and bring out a bit more of the Jacobine wit for which Mr Rees-Mogg is famed. Still on the subject of rebels, I asked him to consider where he would take the Not-Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn on a blind date. After a momentary lapse in this faithful journalist’s research, we assumed that the humous-loving Corbyn must be a vegetarian. Rees-Mogg then earnestly considered the proposition, and decided it must be Wiltons, “a very nice restaurant where you see other Labour figures, although perhaps more of the Lord Mandelson kind than the Jeremy Corbyn kind.” Regarding the menu, Rees- Mogg highlighted that he would complete the meal with Wiltons’ “most excellent cherry trifle”.
On a more serious note, however, Mogg stressed that despite the fact that Corbyn has views with which he “utterly disagrees”, he considers him to be a “most sincere politician” with whom he “could find areas of interest if not of agreement” – although he added that a Wiltons cherry trifle would be “essential”.
Of course no rebel would be complete without the ability to bide time in moments of dismay, and so I asked Mr Rees-Mogg about the filibustering in the House of Commons – a method of elongating speeches in order to avoid discussion of other legislation – for which he is famed. Mogg’s top filibustering tip was to prearrange points of information with other mischievous MPs before the session, that way one can engage in ‘invite refuelling’ which enables an MP to continue their speech indefinitely.
The current record of six hours was set in 1828. One of Rees-Mogg’s most famous filibusters was a speech in which he argued that all London council officials with the power to issue immediate fines should be forced to wear bowler hats. On probing him about this, he replied coolly; “I am against minor officials having the power to fine.” So next time you’re in trouble with the Domestic Bursar for spilling ‘Tesco’s Fruity Red’ on the carpet , give Mr Rees-Mogg a buzz, and after a hop, skip and a filibuster, you’ll be off in a jiffy.
What with talk of bowler hats, Wiltons, and Mogg’s omnipresent vowels, seemingly cut on the glass from which he sipped his iced orange juice, I ventured to ask whether he sympathised with his popular parliamentary conception as MP for the early Twentieth Century. To this he responded, “I find it absolutely shocking that anyone should think me so modern.” True to himself, however, Rees-Mogg contrasted this self-deprecating witticism with a serious point. Although he considers the Eighteenth Century arguably the most amusing time to have been in parliament, “the highpoint of parliament is probably mid-Nineteenth Century.”
Suddenly a great cheer swept through the room when Union President, Charles Vaughan, stood on a table and announced that the motion had failed to carry by a significant margin. On hearing this, Rees-Mogg leant over his chair and confided, “That is the first time I have ever been on the winning side of an Oxford Union debate.”
This confession brought me back to my original point: that Jacob Rees-Mogg, however conventional he may appear, is a rebel. When I reintroduced the subject, he attempted to deny it once more saying, “I think I’m one of the most boringly conventional people you could find.” Superficially, this is true, but Rees-Mogg followed it up with a statement that only a first-class dissident could wield: “I occasionally oppose the government when I think it’s wrong. I hardly think that’s deeply rebellious.” That is where we disagree.
On watching Rees-Mogg debate earlier in the evening, I felt curiously transported. His attitude, leaning nonchalantly against the dispatch box, his clear, booming voice, his classical references and wit all reminded me of the busts which surrounded him. He alluded to the days of Gladstone, Disraeli and Salisbury as a high point in bygone parliament, and yet he seemed to be one them. I can only conclude therefore that Mr Rees-Mogg is rebellious in his unconventional conventionality: he is a rebel in a suit.
In a period where Tory politicians are becoming increasingly self-conscious, botoxed and blundering around after parliamentary whips, characters like Rees-Mogg, who speak their minds regardless of personal loss, are a rarity, and should be treasured. Neverthe- less, whatever the future, the press might want to keep an eye on Wiltons for the time being.