Rees-Mogg: First family of fogeys
Jacob was penning letters to the 'Financial Times' when he was 12. Annunziata joined the Tory party at the age of five. Now they have their sights set on becoming MPs. By Guy Adams
Thursday 19 October 2006
For David Cameron's new-look Tories, it was the political equivalent of a kick in the cobblers. Last week, Conservatives in Somerton and Frome selected the Honourable Annunziata Rees-Mogg to fight their plum marginal seat at the next general election.
At one of the party's much-hyped "US style" primaries, 250 local voters ignored an array of earnest and metropolitan "Cameroons" to select Rees-Mogg, the privately educated, Eurosceptic daughter of a life peer, by a majority of almost two to one.
"Annunziata emphasised that she grew up locally, and that her priorities are tax cuts and Europe," said a member of the audience. "That might not make her the sort of candidate we're supposed to have chosen, but it's exactly what you need to win an election in the West Country. I was very impressed."
Last Thursday's vote didn't just flick a V-sign in David Cameron's general direction. Beyond the grandstanding, the crowd at Caryford Hall in Castle Cary were also witnessing an unprecedented "moment" in British political history, one that could mark the start of a famous parliamentary dynasty.
The rub, so to speak, is that Ms Rees-Mogg happens to be the youngest daughter of the former Times editor, William. Her brother, Jacob, is the headline-prone 37-year-old banker who in May was selected by the Tories to contest North-east Somerset, the next-door seat to Somerton and Frome.
As a result, the well-appointed Jacob and Annunziata are likely to become the first siblings to fight adjacent seats at a general election. Should both triumph (and the signs at present are that they will) they will make history as the first brother and sister to sit in the House of Commons.
"I am absolutely thrilled," she said last week. "Our family home is here, and there's no other seat I would rather have been selected to fight. What is more, economies of scale ought to be possible when it comes to printing the 'Vote Rees-Mogg' posters."
It is quite a prospect. In the occasionally dreary world of modern politics, the two Rees-Moggs are a sore thumb. Products of rural Somerset, London society and various outposts of the public school system, they are young, outspoken and (unlike the Tony Blairs and David Camerons of this world) proud to be posh.
As a result, Jacob and Annunziata divide opinion. To opponents, they are precocious relics of a bygone era, who represent all that is worst about old-school Conservatism. To friends, they are honest victims of reverse snobbery, wilfully misrepresented by the Labour-supporting media.
Either way, the young Rees Moggs are difficult to ignore. One satirist likens writing about their travails to, "dispatching a straightforward half-volley pitched a few feet wide of off-stump". He adds: "Jacob and his sister embody everything Cameron doesn't want to see on his benches, and everything I do. They are unreconstructed toffs, ardent tax-cutters, and slightly obsessive Eurosceptics. Most importantly, they've always had an unerring knack of ending up in the news."
Just two weeks ago, a case in point: the Eton and Oxford-educated Jacob was interviewed on Newsnight about his party's efforts to install more women and ethnic minority candidates.
"The Tory party when it's elected has to be able to form a government, and it's not going to be able to form a government if it has potted plants as candidates simply to make up quotas," he said. "We don't want to make it harder for intellectually able people to be candidates."
The comments were (perhaps unfairly) interpreted as an effort to liken all alumni of state schools to "potted plants". Jacob found himself at the centre of a row that lasted throughout the Tory conference; his future electoral opponent Dan Norris branded him "crass and ignorant".
A friend said: "Jacob's words were taken out of context and misrepresented. But as a politician, what did he expect? He should obviously never have said them in the first place. You'll find that he's the first to admit he is not an expert media performer."
The trait goes back to childhood. J R-M took an early interest in Tory politics, joined the party when in short trousers, and is reputed to have written his first letter to the Financial Times at the age of 12. With William Hague, he is said to have provided the inspiration to Harry Enfield's character "Tory Boy."
After leaving Eton, he studied history at Trinity College, Oxford, and became president of the University Conservative Association. Contemporaries recall a fogeyish young man, with a cut-glass accent and a nifty line in blazers, tweed jackets, and pinstripe suits.
It was not until the mid-Nineties that Rees-Mogg was thrust into the public eye. Having decamped from Oxford to the City in 1991, he was selected by the Tories to contest Central Fife - the last place in Britain to have elected a Communist MP - at the 1997 election.
Voters in the gritty former mining seat, which at the time had an unemployment level of 9 per cent, were somewhat bemused to see the thick-skinned Rees-Mogg canvassing from a luxury car (some reports said Bentley, others Rolls-Royce).
He further caught the public imagination when the media reported that the elderly lady helping him canvass was in fact his former nanny. And with extraordinary panache, he denied suggestions from reporters that he alter his charcoal suit and tie, saying: "I think a flat cap would be rather transparent, don't you?"
Yet for all the bravery in the face of enormous odds, Rees-Mogg's cut-glass vowels led to communication problems with his potential voters, and the result of the election was near oblivion: he finished third, only narrowly retaining his deposit.
Undeterred, he returned to the public eye in 1999 when a production company asked if he might submit to an interview with a then-unknown "yoof" TV presenter by the name of Ali G.
The subject of the interview, broadcast that year, was "the class system", and the result ended-up being a minor classic of the comedy genre. "What makes a girl upper class?" asked the spoof rapper. "Is it things like she spits in a hankie?" Rees-Mogg, clad in pinstripes, umm-ed and ah-ed his way through the interview, before being forced to speculate about "getting busy" with his counterpart's sister.
It is unclear if the fallout from the affair affected his failure in the 2001 general election, when he stood for the key target seat of The Wrekin in Shropshire, losing to Labour's Peter Bradley.
Annunziata has been less cavalier about popping up on television. Like her brother, the 27-year-old admits being fascinated with politics from an early age, saying: "I joined the party aged five. Seriously, I did. Aged eight, I was out canvassing, proudly wearing my rosette. It was one up from the Blue Peter badge as far as I was concerned."
After leaving university, she landed a job editing Tory MP Bill Cash's ardently Eurosceptic European Journal, and scored a notable "scoop" in an early edition by landing a comment piece from her own father. More recently, she has been working as a leader-writer on The Daily Telegraph.
In 2005, it was Annunziata's turn to fight a hopeless electoral seat: Aberavon in south Wales. Like her brother before her, she was ably assisted by Lord Rees-Mogg, an experienced canvasser who fought (and lost) Chester-le-Street for the Tories in 1959.
"Annunziata will be fine," he wrote at the time. "Like all the best women politicians, she is a bonny fighter for her causes, and I am naturally proud of that." She came fourth behind Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.
Somerton and Frome ought to be a different matter, and in addition to her father and mother, Gillian, Annunziata will be assisted on the stump by boyfriend Matthew Glanville, a former employee of the Eurosceptic MP David Heathcoat-Amory, who has just been dispatched to Iraq with the Territorial Army.
Jacob's love life is also in fine fettle. He recently confounded friends - many of whom had him down as a committed bachelor - by announcing his engagement to Helena de Chair, a 28-year-old blonde journalist whose father was the roguish late Tory MP Somerset de Chair.
"As a couple, they're a bit like chalk and cheese," says a chum. "I was at Bristol University with Helena, and she was a bit of a wild child. In fact, her 21st birthday party, a masked ball in the vein of Eyes Wide Shut, was one of the most debauched events I have attended." Helena is also thought to wear a tongue stud.
Yet neither Rees-Mogg is easy to pigeon-hole. Annunziata was once a staple of society gossip columns, but has since gained a reputation as a sharp and able journalist.
Jacob has spent almost 15 years in the City, where colleagues describe him in glowing terms. "From what you read about him, you'd think he's a posh half-wit," says one. "But you don't get into Trinity, or go anywhere in the City, by being stupid."
He is also sharpening up his image, and recently ditched his trademark spectacles for contact lenses. "Jacob has always said that he doesn't regret being posh, because in his view that just means having good manners and being considerate to your fellow man," adds the colleague. "Most of the criticism he's received has been terribly unfair."
Therein lies the debate over Britain's newest set of political siblings. Love them or hate them, it is difficult to disagree that, to adapt a phrase coined by their father, some of the nastier criticism of the Rees-Moggs looks dangerously like breaking butterflies on a wheel.
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