Thursday morning blues

Anything more and they’d expect too much

Thursday in Parliament offered sight of two of the Tory Party’s leading lights. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab were both in the chamber, both facing questions about shifty behaviour.

The very idea that Rees-Mogg would engage in such activities might sound ridiculous. He seems a man of impeccably upright bearing, the Tories’ Tory.

Taking questions in his role as Commons Leader he was, as ever, the parliamentary charmer, scrupulously polite to opposition MPs. There was, perhaps, a gentle condescension in his tone, as though addressing tenant farmers who had been invited to the big hall for Christmas drinks. But he was clear that they were welcome, even if they shouldn’t get too comfortable. The exception to this gentility came when he addressed members of the Scottish National Party, an unruly and somewhat uncouth family whom he suspects of wanting to break up the estate.

Rees-Mogg wears his gentility like a bulletproof vest

But the thing about Rees-Mogg is that every now and then, when his guests wonder where he’s got to, it turns out he’s been off tying Penelope Pitstop to a railway line. The latest occasion was on Tuesday, when he attempted to rush through a change to the rules on how parliament works in the time of coronavirus. In the House of Commons, this sort of stunt is viewed as very much not on. No one expects him to serve his best champagne to this set of guests, but there is a rumour that on this occasion they were given prosecco.

The move failed, and on Thursday Rees-Mogg faced some tricky questions about it. He responded with polite bafflement, seemingly repeatedly missing the point of questions. He had only been trying to solve a problem, he explained, he wanted the same thing as everyone else, and he had no idea how those bottles had got there, he would speak to the butler directly.

Rees-Mogg wears his gentility like a bulletproof vest. Even when his fellow Tory John Baron was criticising him, he felt obliged to begin by saying that Rees-Mogg was “a thoroughly decent chap”, expressing confidence that his error on this occasion was a “blind spot” and reassuring Rees-Mogg that he, Baron, had “more than my fair share” of these. All that was missing was a forelock tug and a “savin’ yer Lordship’s presence”.

Raab arrived a little later to explain why the government was breaking its manifesto commitment and cutting its international aid spending by a third. It was a decision, he explained, taken “with regret”, a “temporary measure” that was the result of “painful choices”. You half expected him to say that the cut would hurt him more than it would hurt the Third World.

Responding, Labour’s Preet Kaur Gill was full of righteous anger. The move was, she said, the “biggest retreat by a British government from our global role in decades.”

The government has to decide if the aid cut is something forced upon it by circumstances, or a voter-pleasing choice

That might seem excessive, but Raab’s response was graceless. “Where to start with that?” he began. The trouble is that it may well be difficult to come to the chamber and explain why you’re breaking a promise you were elected on, but Raab’s career has been built on campaigning to give parliament more power. If it’s not going to use that power to hold governments accountable, then what is the point?

In fact, the people who are most undermining his argument are on his own side. And here we come to an earlier error by Rees-Mogg.

Ben Bradley is a young Tory who is rapidly becoming the go-to MP for journalists who need an outraged quote about BBC newsreaders not singing the national anthem loudly enough. Mutley to Rees-Mogg’s Dick Dastardly, he popped up by video link to tell the Commons Leader that the overseas aid cut would poll very well and was “long overdue”.

Rees-Mogg, who had ignored earlier questions about the cut, was happy to take this one. “I absolutely agree with him,” he said. “People will very much welcome the announcement made by the government yesterday – other, possibly, than a few Islingtonians.”

There are a few problems with this. First, many of those angriest about the cut are Tories. David Davis is hardly an Islington liberal. Second, if your guide to foreign aid donations is going to be what the public thinks we can spare, you will rapidly find you’re sending crates of Brussels sprouts that are past their date along with unsold copies of Iain Duncan Smith’s novel.

But most of all, the government has to decide if the aid cut is something forced upon it by circumstances, or a voter-pleasing choice taken to stick it to Guardian readers. Raab says it’s one, but Rees-Mogg, perhaps having sipped too much of whatever it is he’s serving his guests, made it sound very much like the other.

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