A woman dressed as a nun is standing outside the London Palladium with a placard, warning about ‘an evening with a religious extremist’. She refers to Jacob Rees-Mogg, who sold all 2,300 seats at the venue in a fortnight — a feat that enraged his critics all the more.
The nun eventually found a loudspeaker to address Spectator subscribers, who waved cheerfully as they filed in to the theatre. This stage has played host to entertainers like Bruce Forsyth, Marvin Gaye, Tommy Steele and Jimmy Tarbuck — and now, the backbench MP for North East Somerset, offering an evening of political discussion. We live in strange times.
He arrives late, fresh from a meeting with the European Research Group of Tory Brexit MPs, where they had to accept their game was up. He says he’s ready for no deal. ‘But I don’t think we’ve got the votes in parliament for it,’ he admits. So he has changed tactics, and is ready to back an extension of Article 50 in the hope of improving Theresa May’s deal. ‘If three months’ delay is the price we have to pay to get out properly… well, three months in the history of our great nation is a mere bagatelle. We can live with that. So we are very optimistic and we will make sure that Brexit succeeds.’
I put it to him that, right now, Brexit looks like a mess — and one made worse by his botched attempt to depose the Prime Minister, further diminishing her authority. ‘I think perhaps you have a kindly view of the authority that the Prime Minister had earlier in this process,’ he says. So that’s his defence: that her authority couldn’t have got any lower? ‘Broadly: yes,’ he replies. Her deal was a dud, so he felt he had to act. ‘You can snipe from the sidelines, you can give anonymous briefings, you can feed poison into people’s ears. Or you can stand up and say: “Actually, this isn’t good enough — we need a change.” That’s what we said. It didn’t work and therefore we had to accept that result.’
The debacle over the leadership challenge seems to have done nothing to dent his popularity — not just with Brexiteers, but also with those struck by his cheerful defence of unpopular positions. The protestor dressed as a nun (later thwarted in an attempt to smuggle stink bombs into the theatre) had a point often made by his critics: that his religious views — he opposes gay marriage and abortion, even in cases of incest and rape — are illiberal and extreme. He replies that this is simply the teaching of a Catholic church with a billion members. ‘So me and a billion extremists. Even more than the 17.4 million I agree with on Brexit. And I get accused of being an extremist for that as well. I think it’s a term that gets bandied about by people who don’t want to engage in any intellectual argument.’
But, he’s asked from the floor, what about Tim Farron, who quit as the Lib Dem leader saying it wasn’t possible to be a Christian and lead a mainstream party? You can’t be a Christian and lead the Liberal Democrats, he says. ‘But that’s hardly a mainstream party nowadays. They hounded out Tim Farron. The Conservative party, in this sense, is much more liberal. I’m very lucky, I do appreciate that.’ And the reaction his religious views so often draw? ‘I only get the reaction from a nutter who dresses up as a nun. I’m not appealing to the nutter vote.’
So who does he appeal to? When I stood at the door on the way in to see who turned up, I was struck by how many members of the Rees-Mogg family were coming through the doors, nanny and all. Gillian, his mother, told me that she helped kick-start his investment career when he inherited £50 aged ten, and was given the choice to spend or invest it. He chose the latter, and a year later turned up to the GEC annual meeting to complain about the dividend policy. In his late twenties, he set up Somerset Capital Management, which manages £5.3 billion of funds. He works there one day a week, paying himself a cool £500 an hour.
Excessive? ‘You wouldn’t get a lawyer for that,’ he laughs. ‘If you create a business that employs 50 people, has an office in Singapore and an office in London I think you deserve to be paid for it. I’m a capitalist,’ he says. ‘When I set up Somerset Capital Management with my partners we operated from the basement of my house in London. We didn’t have an office. The first few months’ salaries were paid from my own bank account. You are entitled, when you take that risk of setting up a business, to make money out of it. If people don’t, we have no prosperity in this country.’
The audience loved it, but one dissenter asked if £500 an hour was a bit much when he’s voting for nurses and doctors to have pay freezes. ‘Completely irrelevant comparison,’ he snaps back. ‘It’s nothing to do with being worth anything. It’s what is produced by the company that you have and therefore the value that comes from that company.’
There have been so many rumours about the Moggster that it’s very hard to discern fact from fiction. Is it true that, as a father of six, he has never changed a nappy? Yes: ‘I don’t think Nanny would think I was competent at it.’ ’ That he has never washed up the dishes? ‘Well, there’s a washing machine!’ But is he in the habit of stacking or emptying it? ‘Not routinely, no’. And is it true that he said Theresa May was ‘absolutely brilliant and will do a fabulous job’? He beats his breast. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’
The final question from the floor: how will he celebrate Brexit day? ‘The problem with the 29 March is it’s in the middle of Lent,’ he says. ‘But the great thing about the Catholic church is that there is usually some dispensation. So I must find out which saint’s day it is on the 29 March. If we have really left, then that saint will be so honoured. With Pol Roger, with Bollinger — you name it, that saint will be honoured.’
FULL RECORDING OF THE DISCUSSION BELOW…