I’m fond of Jacob Rees-Mogg. I’ll happily admit it. The guy’s a treasure. Double-breasted suits, his quadruple named children, the way he managed to smash David Dimbleby’s Eton taunt without breaking a sweat, the fact he winds up Paul Merton – I can’t get enough.
And, of course, it’s not just the wicked old Tories that adore JRM – he’s got plenty of cross-party love, whether it’s Mhairi Black admitting that she could listen to him for hours (the fiercely anti-austerity SNP MP has joked that he’s her “boyfriend”) or his constant palling around with Jess Phillips.
Yes, I don’t agree with half of his views, and while I don’t believe for a moment the man will ever be Prime Minister, he wouldn’t be my first choice for leader even if he ever did “throw his hat into the ring and have it thrown back at (him)”, to borrow his phrasing.
But the one thing about Rees-Mogg that few in politics seem to disagree with – including his most ardent critics – is that he’s a genuine guy. Granted, some of the rationale for this may be “who in god’s name would willingly pretend to be like Jacob Rees-Mogg?” but, as Phillips put it, “he is who he is!”
However, not all agree. Indeed, it’s been murmured for a while now that maybe this isn’t who Rees-Mogg is. Maybe the appearance of authenticity is itself inauthentic. Maybe it’s all an act.
I disagree. Disliking Rees-Mogg is all very well – it takes all sorts to make a world – but that’s an entirely different thing from saying the man is a fake, not least because of the leaps of logic required to believe that any 12-year-old child would willingly don that persona for a bit of a laugh.
To believe that Rees-Mogg’s entire persona is, as Guardian columnist Marina Hyde put it, a “Mr Ripley-esque crafting of his personal brand”, would be to believe that Rees-Mogg has essentially been plotting a political career from the moment of his own conception. Have these people seen the interview of Rees-Mogg at 12? The lad was in a monocle, for goodness’ sake.
Love him or loathe him, the idea Rees-Mogg manufactured a persona from the moment he first toddled along at nanny’s heel is far-fetched. Even Machiavelli would possibly even he would raise an eyebrow. As Rees-Mogg himself has said, “the most definitive answer I can give is that nobody would deliberately develop my image.”
But the idea some cling to – that Rees-Mogg’s entire persona is a complete caricature – runs deeper, and speaks to a wider issue on the left. While admittedly Boris Johnson could be seen to play up to his persona, and enjoy the get-out-of-jail-free card that being an eccentric provides, Rees-Mogg doesn’t shy away from debating his views.
Nonetheless, plenty of columnists seem to almost depend on the idea that the whole persona is a crafted image to disguise what seems to be the true horror for the left – the potential existence of a man who doesn’t agree with them.
Marina Hyde insists that his supporters are “self-loathing”, Matthew Norman calls him “an exquisitely polite thug”, and irony died a death when Catherine Bennett, a woman who devoted six years to a weekly misogynistic parody column of the former Prime Minister’s wife typecasting her as an airheaded idiot, called JRM a “posh political monster”.
But this isn’t something that’s limited to Rees-Mogg. David Cameron couldn’t do anything without it being insisted it was a PR move – from holidays in Cornwall, to sending his children to state schools, to buying his wife a car.
More seriously, any time he mentioned his late son, Ivan, he faced horrific diatribes from some columnists suggesting that he was “using” the death of his disabled child. When Theresa May mentioned her late godchild in her 2018 conference speech or visited victims of the 2017 terror attacks, the left piled in with accusations that these were attempts to “seem human” and even, from Owen Jones, the artist of the Twitter pile-on, an Orwellian style order of “do not forgive.” The idea, it seemed, that there could be humanity to their political enemies was almost unbearable.
The main issue that those who insist Rees-Mogg and others are caricatures seem to have is not only that they can’t understand it, but that they don’t want to believe others can. The idea that, in JRM’s case, this composite character – who is antiquated, right-wing, different from everything they claim the country hates and who is also comfortable being that way – could not only be genuine, but that the country could actually like it, is anathema.
The left have always seen the country the way they want to see it – it’s why they’re so shocked every time there’s a Tory victory, scrambling to insist Rupert Murdoch has personally rearranged the neurons in each individual voter’s brain and that whichever Labour candidate they support is an innocent victim of his horrid bullying (I’m looking at you, Milifandom). They often openly write articles weeping for the fact that the country isn’t falling in line with the way they want it to, (some even going so far as to claim the left have a monopoly on empathy, as well as everything else.)
The fact that the public could so openly approve of a person, idea or party who they felt safe dismissing doesn’t so much as shake their world-view, as crack it from top to bottom and send it merrily into the Thames before you can whisper a forlorn “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn” to wish it farewell. The only way they have to console themselves is the idea that it can’t possibly be genuine.
And this kind of view is dangerous. You only have to look at the reports of Anna Soubry having protesters physically intimidating her outside Parliament, the sight of protestors outside Rees-Mogg’s home, or the horrific incident of food writer Jack Monroe claiming that David Cameron “uses misty-eyed stories about his dead son” to see where refusing to apportion any degree of humanity to political opponents leaves us.
All of these incidents prompted horror, but each time, we fail to acknowledge the casual dehumanising of political opponents that led to them.
Rees-Mogg will almost definitely never be Prime Minister. He’ll most probably never even be a minister. But like it or not, he’s a prominent figure, and the left, no matter what they do, can’t stop the public making up their own minds about him. Which is why they badly need to believe that he can’t possibly be a genuine person, because that so harshly contradicts their view of the world.
But maybe, if your view of the world is so badly damaged by others not agreeing with you, your arguments aren’t too strong after all. And that being the case then maybe, as Rees-Mogg might put it himself, you may need to focus on vox populi vox dei. Or, in less Moggian terms, grow up and deal with it.