With Parliament in recess and Brexit fatigue well and truly setting in, we enter the August silly season, where journalists starved of a story scramble around desperately to find material to feed the ravenous 24-hour news cycle. Pickings are particularly slim this year, considering that 2016 had a Presidential race in the US, a Labour leadership contest at home, and the Rio Olympics. Perhaps this is why all the UK’s major newspapers bear cheery photos of Jacob Rees-Mogg alongside headlines including the phrase ‘future tory leader’.
The man affectionately known as the ‘Honourable Member for the 20th Century’ could hardly seem more out of place in the present decade, let alone as leader of the country. And yet, despite never holding a Ministerial post, Rees-Mogg is riding a wave of social media stardom and can count among his supporters online collectives with names like ‘Moggmentum’ and ‘Can’t Clog the Mogg’. In a recent poll of its readers carried out by Conservative Home, Rees-Mogg came second only to David Davis on the question of leadership preference, a feat which is made more impressive given that he did not feature in the poll but had to be written in by respondents.
Naturally, the self-effacing Rees-Mogg has played down both his desire to lead the party and his chances of winning if he were to throw his hat into the ring. But at the same time he has been clocking up a suspiciously large number of media appearances for someone with no interest in the leadership. There are even suggestions that he has been ‘sounding out’ friends about his prospects, although the provenance of the sources is not exactly clear, and nor is what ‘sounding out’ his friends actually means for Jacob Rees Mogg – the phrase brings to mind images of him hunched over a Ouija board trying to raise Geoffrey Chaucer (were his faith to allow such a practice and his upbringing to countenance such a posture).
While this story has all the hallmarks of a classic silly season flight of fancy, recent political history makes it increasingly difficult to dismiss such stories as frivolous. After all, both Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump swept to power after being condemned as jokes and no-hopers early on. And in many ways, Rees-Mogg fits the mould: he is a conviction politician, unsullied by compromise and unafraid to voice controversial opinions; he is considered a straight-talker (give or take a few polysyllables); and he has an avid social media following. The Conservative Party also appears to be lacking a serious successor to May; the most popular candidate according to current polling is David Davis, a 2005 also-ran who described himself as a ‘terrible leadership candidate’ in Edinburgh earlier this week.
It will be interesting to see whether ‘Moggmentum’ dies down after Parliament returns and journalistic attention moves elsewhere, or whether the unlikely grass-roots movement will continue to pick up support. The failure of attempts to dismiss, ignore, or ridicule the likes of Donald Trump may prompt the Labour Party and more liberal Conservatives to challenge the threat of a Rees-Mogg surge more directly, regardless of how ridiculous the prospect of a Rees-Mogg leadership may seem on the surface.