Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Cave quid vis

Despite all the odds, Jacob Rees-Mogg wins the 2022 general election to the disbelief of progressives everywhere

They said it was impossible. Like Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, they said it would never happen. They said he was too extreme, like Margaret Thatcher. They said he lacked any experience, like Tony Blair or Donald Trump. They said people like him never become prime minister, because no one like him had ever become prime minister before. They used the past as a guide to the future, and as usual it proved a false prophet. They – the soothsayers, oracles and pundits of modern politics – got it wrong. Again.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg, the honourable member for North East Somerset, strode up Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, pausing for adorable photographs on the steps of No 10 with his wife Helena and their six children, he could be forgiven a dash of smugness at defying his multiple critics. They called him a deadbeat dad. A toff. A fascist. A Nazi. And yet somehow, despite his Roman Catholicism, his outdated image, his Thatcherite views, and most of all his hardline nationalism – or perhaps because of them – he had won the 2022 general election. 

Like the United States after Trump’s victory, just under half of the United Kingdom was dumbfounded. It made no sense at all. It was like the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union all over again. Who on earth had voted for him, said millions of Labour voters, working in the public sector in cities and suburbs, with decent pensions and their own homes. ‘We don’t know anyone who voted for him’, they told each other as they chatted in Waitrose or outside their local independent cinema.

On Radio 4 comedy programmes, Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Sue Perkins had mocked his clothes, accent, hair and background. Nish Kumar and Rachel Parris had absolutely nailed it on the Mash Report with a skit about his nanny. Guardian columnists called him Jacob Rees-Mosley. And the memes – so many funny memes – with Rees-Mogg dressed as the pope, or as Adolf Hitler in the bunker shouting at everyone.

The general election campaign had been carnage. Rees-Mogg opted for big, public rallies under the banner ‘back to British values’. In Weston-super-Mare, 30 masked protesters, some in Corbyn T-shirts, were arrested after a major disturbance. In Grimsby, 45 protesters were arrested after smashing up a ‘JRM’ rally. The Labour opposition’s attempts to move the narrative on to solid policy areas such as housing, animal welfare or cuts to local councils were drowned out by the Moggmentum. 

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By 2022, the 72-year-old Corbyn had looked like old news, about as new and exciting as a NutriBullet. Whatever political buzz he had generated five years earlier had gone the sorry way of Cleggmania or Milifandom. Rees-Mogg’s populist campaign saw a six-point rise in turnout and the defeat of Labour in 35 seats in solidly working-class former industrial areas. He hoovered up United Kingdom Independence party votes, record numbers of the over-65s, and swathes of younger people who thought it might be a bit of a laugh, like voting for dog acts on Britain’s Got Talent. 

On that sunny day in May 2022, Rees-Mogg entered Downing Street with his manifesto pledges ringing in his ears. Abolition of the department for international development on day one of a Rees-Mogg government, with 90 per cent of the ‘international aid’ budget reallocated to deprived parts of the UK.  A new ‘business charter’ with laws encouraging zero-hours contracts and a ban on strikes in key sectors of the economy like the railways and the fire service. An immediate end to Britain’s role in climate change treaties, unshackling British industry. Compulsory Latin in schools. Ripping up the Human Rights Act. A new bank holiday to celebrate the monarchy. Dark hints about restrictions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and a new ‘moral basis’ for sex and relationship education. And of course, tearing up Theresa May’s Brexit agreement, which he had endlessly denounced as ‘BRINO’ – ‘Brexit in name only’ – in favour of ‘full-throated independence as a maritime trading nation and the birthplace of parliamentary democracy’. Even Boris Johnson, sulking in the doldrums after his defeat in the Tory leadership contest just before the election, publicly endorsed Rees-Mogg and his alt-right policies. Britain was set upon a new course, back to the 1850s.

In modern politics, we crave authenticity, and Rees-Mogg is an authentically religious right-wing reactionary. We desire novelty, and Rees-Mogg is distinctly different from all that has gone before, at least since the earl of Derby. We elevate political celebrity above talent or aptitude. We value slogans and chanting above all that dull stuff about a proven track record or workable policies. So we should not be surprised at the irresistible rise of Rees-Mogg, no less bizarre than Trump or unlikely than Emmanuel Macron. Something is stirring, people, and it will take more than another crappy post on Skwawkbox to squash it.

Cave quid vis, as they say in Latin. Be careful what you wish for. 

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The Progressive is a Progress columnist.

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