Last night, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke on campus at a packed event organised by the Bath University Conservative Association (BUCA) in cooperation with the SU. Rees-Mogg, whose NE Somerset constituency surrounds Bath, spoke about the necessity of free speech as a principle which underpins the British democratic system and political culture. Although this topic, and some of the related questions, were at times a lacklustre focal point for an MP famed for his provocative beliefs, he took an extensive variety of questions; including questions on agricultural policy, gay marriage, and the supremacy of pragmatism over ideology.
Following a ‘brawl’ erupting at a recent event attended by Rees-Mogg at the University of West England, security was visibly present. The organisers and the SU were clearly anxious to avoid negative headlines, with library cards inspected before entry and the SU President, Ben Davies, chairing the event. The tone of the event remained amicable throughout and there were no disruptions, beyond a Channel 4 news reporter quizzing the MP and event organisers about why national media were prevented from filming an event centred around free speech; after he was misguidedly allowed in, despite clear bans for external media placed by the SU, on the evidently false promise that he would ask no questions. However, he which he was quickly rebutted by BUCA Secretary for Events and Speakers, Jordan Edwards, who said that the event designed exclusively for Bath University students; gaining the longest applause of the evening, even if it was to silence further protests from the journalist.
Asked about the ongoing University staff strike over pension disputes, Rees-Mogg felt that students were being “punished” by striking lecturers, and that the price of pension calculations were based on incorrect actuarial figures. He added that “in professional life, strike action is very unwise”. Suggesting that the UCU’s industrial action was rudimentary, he remarked that “You would have thought the most articulate people to put their point across would be University lecturers.” Although the comment seemed to perturb some in the audience, no one followed him up on this; highlighting the limits of the static Q & A format.
There were various questions on Brexit, which Rees-Mogg handled with an optimistic tenor. He was buoyed by several vocal supporters of his anti-EU stance in the audience, who will rarely find themselves at a University event so conducive to Eurosceptic sentiment. Central to his argument was the framing of the decision to leave the EU as anchored in the need to recall Sovereignty from the EU as a matter of democratic principle; “all the rest of it is detail”. It is worth noting the cost of such “detail” is estimated to be around £4bn p/a in Civil Service Preparations, with the Chancellor, Philip Hammond injecting an extra £3bn into preparations fund last November. On other Brexit related issues, he was quick to dismiss the viability of a second referendum, he described the role of the Government and Bank of England during the 2016 referendum as “disgraceful”, and also stated that European freedom of movement had been derailed by the comparative economic inequality between European states; which he claimed had deflated wages among the poorest in the UK. Questioned about the “bus promise” of an extra £350m made during the referendum, he tried to distance himself from this campaign tactic but felt it was a figure which “could have been justified”.
Rees-Mogg was introduced as the man with four to one odds on becoming the next Prime Minister. Although Rees-Mogg was quick to dismiss these claims, saying his fifth and sixth children had a better chance, through his self-deprecating-wit, courteous eloquence, and unique style, he has become arguably the most prominent backbench MP in the country. Whilst his fans have viewed his candidness as refreshing in a stale, manufactured political environment, his critics have warned that his charisma masks regressively anachronistic beliefs. A New Statesman article recently referred to him as “the polite extremist”, whilst fellow Tory MPs Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Justine Greening have all hinted they would leave the Party, if he were elected leader. The ease with which he disarmed hostile questions however, and adopted an almost charming persona, was striking. Although “the Honourable Member for the 18th Century” (as he is known by some) is unlikely to have sincerely converted swathes of the non-BUCA attendees to the Party, his comment that “my desire is to not give the standard answer” to questions, was an apt reflection on his engaging demeanour.