Will Jacob Rees Mogg be the Next Prime Minister?
This past September, Jacob Rees-Mogg gave an interview with Good Morning Britain. During the interview, Rees-Mogg told the hosts that abortion was “morally indefensible” in all cases, and that he was opposed to same-sex marriage. “I am a Catholic and I take the teachings of the Catholic Church seriously,” he said. “Marriage is a sacrament and the decision of what is a sacrament lies with the Church, not with Parliament.” It is no wonder that, following this interview, my Facebook feed was filled with Rees-Mogg’s bespectacled face; every British news outlet was running a story on the interview. Rees-Mogg was starting to make a name for himself.
Of course, I had known about Rees-Mogg for a while. He was the spindly aristocrat with a posh accent, an unearthed relic of the era when Britain kept servants downstairs and used words like “fogey.” He had been a backbencher for the Conservative Party since 2010 and was a notable figure less for his political views than for his comic value.
When Rees-Mogg graced national headlines in the past, it had been as the subject of banter, usually at his expense. For instance, who could forget his 1999 interview with Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional, working-class alter ego? In the interview, Ali G asks Rees-Mogg questions such as, “What if someone is so rich they have a swimming pool—would they be upper class?” and “What makes a girl upper class? Is it things like she spits into her hankie?”—questions to which Rees-Mogg usually replied in a confused and bumbling manner, citing “bizarre definitions of class.” At one point, Rees-Mogg even lends Ali G his top hat, which he conveniently had on hand.
You should not think, however, that Rees-Mogg is just a one-hit wonder. Another newsworthy Mogg moment was when he used the word “floccinaucinihilipilification” in the House of Commons. Yet another is the rumor that he attaches his plastic security pass to a gold watch chain at Conservative party conferences.
All of these amusing anecdotes are good fodder for tabloids and stand-up comedy bits. But this September, Rees-Mogg was a hot topic of conversation for another reason altogether. He had been tipped as the next leader of the Conservative party and had expressed on television views about abortion and same-sex marriage which did not correspond to public opinion or current legislation in the United Kingdom. In his defense, the Tory MP had claimed that the issue was not “party political” and that the views of a single member of Parliament were hardly likely to sway a party that had already passed a bill granting same-sex marriage. However, the interview made liberals across Britain shift in their seats, thinking the next potential Tory leader could be so anti-LGBT rights.
Although Rees-Mogg does not support abortion or same-sex marriage, the United Kingdom is a progressive country when it comes to social rights. It is highly unlikely that a Rees-Mogg premiership would result in any drastic violations of women’s or LGBT rights. The more concerning hypothetical, though, is what a Rees-Mogg premiership would look like for welfare and austerity measures, an arena where a Prime Minister certainly can have a significant impact.
This past October, anti-austerity protesters confronted Rees-Mogg at the Tory Party conference. One protester, face-to-face with Rees-Mogg, charged, “There are people who are dying because of the things that you are advocating.” In response, Rees-Mogg retorted, “I don’t agree with that. I think that the policies the government are implementing are actually making people’s lives better.”
This protester had come to the conference as part of a larger group expressing opposition to Rees-Mogg’s support for the austerity measures taken by the Conservative government since 2010. In March 2009, the national deficit of the United Kingdom was 11.4 percent of GDP. Each year, as the Conservatives introduced more spending cuts, Britain’s deficit shrunk. In March 2016, the United Kingdom’s deficit was just 4 percent of GDP. One year later, in March 2017, the deficit was 2.4 percent of GDP, a decrease of 28.2 billion pounds from the previous year. Austerity policies have certainly been eliminating the deficit, but the cuts in spending have also hurt those receiving welfare benefits.
For instance, the Universal Credit policy, introduced in 2013 as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 2012, is an austerity policy that has had and will continue to have drastic consequences for low-income individuals living in the United Kingdom. Universal Credit combines several different benefit payments into one standard payment. Child tax credit, housing benefits, income support, jobseeker’s allowances, and a few other benefits are replaced with a single payment made to a claimant. A claimant thus receives all of the benefit payments for which they are eligible but in a single sum rather than in multiple payments. The policy was meant to streamline welfare benefit payment schemes, but the policy has had negative side effects for claimants.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted that the Universal Credit policy will increase child poverty from 17.8 percent in 2015/16 to 25.7 percent by 2020/21, and the Trussel Trust Foodbank has seen a significant increase in the number of people using their foodbanks in those areas where the Universal Credit policy has already been implemented. Additionally, the Trussel Trust has seen an average increase of 16.85 percent in the number of referrals for emergency food in those areas. The national average of referrals for emergency food is 6.64 percent. This rise in food bank use in Universal Credit areas is due, among other things, to delays of up to six weeks in receiving the first payment, to certain reductions in the amounts that claimants receive, and to new forms of conditionality for claimants.
Rees-Mogg, for his part, has said that the existence of food banks is “rather uplifting” and shows what a “good, compassionate country” the United Kingdom is. It should be noted that he voted to introduce Universal Credit in March 2011, voted against introducing a childcare element to the policy in June 2011, and voted for lowering the total amount of welfare benefits that individuals and couples could claim in 2012.
In spite of the fact that the United Kingdom is the world’s sixth largest economy, 8.4 million Brits claimed to live in food-insecure households in 2014. This number is nearly equivalent to the population of New York City. Conservative policies like Universal Credit are exacerbating the problem; as austerity policies continue to cut into government welfare spending, the number of people using food banks will only increase.
In July, Rees-Mogg appeared on the UK’s Question Time and told the audience that, when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, Labour has passed along a drastic deficit. The Tories, then, were forced to choose between increased taxation, increased borrowing, or cuts to the public sector. In the end, they chose to cut spending in the public sector, a move which has definitely diminished the deficit in the last seven years but has hurt Britain’s poorest in the process.
At the Tory party conference in October, the anti-austerity protester had asked Rees-Mogg, “What are you on about, people’s lives are better? You’re ruining people’s lives.” Rees-Mogg responded, “The standard of living in the country is improving, it’s consistently improving.” The protester could only shake his head in angry frustration. “No, it’s not,” he insisted.
In a 2011 BBC documentary titled “Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain,” a reporter asks Rees-Mogg, “What class are you?” In response, Rees-Mogg had claimed, “I’m a man of the people, vox populi, vox dei.” But Rees-Mogg was out of touch with the people then, and he is out of touch with the people now.
Megan Evershed is a junior in the School of General Studies. She's part of the Dual BA Program with Sciences Po and studies political science and English literature.