When I was at university in the US, a pre-med student, thinking that all Europeans were into high culture, decided to take me to the opera to impress me. That was a night of firsts: our first date, our first opera and our first encounter with the unforgettable character of Tartuffe. I say ‘our’ first opera — there wasn’t to be a second: my future boyfriend, not being into high culture, fell asleep on my shoulder… but that’s another story.
Kirke Mechem’s amusing modern opera Tartuffe is based on the 17th century play of the same name by Molière, France’s most famous playwright. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, Tartuffe is a deliciously satirical romp about the unmasking of a hypocrite who feigns virtue – especially religious piety.
When the news broke of Jacob Rees-Mogg infringing Covid-19 restrictions by travelling 15 miles from one tier to another to attend a mass in Latin (yes, really), my first thought was that he was a colossal pharisee. The pharisees were a faction of Jews in biblical times who, like Rees-Mogg, made a very outward show of their religion. In British culture they have come to be synonymous with hypocrisy. The idea that potentially spreading the coronavirus from one tier to another could be justified to indulge a preference for the liturgy in Latin is typically pharisaic. Yet another display of Rees-Mogg’s sanctimonious sense of superiority. Sometimes I think that man is so holier-than-thou, he is no earthly good.
After mulling it over for a while, I remembered that despite members of the pharisee faction constantly doing the dirty on Jesus, there were some good people amongst their number. Joseph of Arimathea, for example, donated a posh tomb for Jesus to be laid to rest in. Calling Jacob Rees-Mogg a pharisee was unfair to pharisees… Then it struck me. Rees-Mogg is Britain’s Tartuffe. He is the ‘perfect’ embodiment of the character — not that that’s a good thing.
While Rees-Mogg doesn’t go in for Tartuffe’s sexual depravity, he is guilty of something far worse: calculated dishonesty. Adultery tends to be a family drama, but lying, especially the systematic sort Rees-Mogg and the government he represents go in for, can ruin millions of lives.
I’m someone who was born into the working classes and has experienced first-hand what it is like to go hungry, to not know where the next rent cheque is coming from and to rely on the kindness of strangers. So, I found it particularly galling that Rees-Mogg promised a Brexit bonanza for the poor. Before the Conservatives had such a stonking majority, and less damaging courses of action were still open to the country, Rees-Mogg repeatedly claimed Brexit would make food, shoes and clothing cheaper ‘straight away’. Despite being corrected time and again by leading economists, he persisted. Sadly, many voters were seduced by his lies. With the empty shelves and climbing prices in the first two weeks of ‘proper’ Brexit, his economically illiterate claims have now been exposed as wishful thinking at best, electioneering duplicity at worst.
He practised a similar cruel trick on voters during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016. Don’t worry about the members of your family living in the EU, or your EU family, friends and neighbours living here, he told the electorate. They will be protected by the Vienna Convention. As they’ve exercised EU treaty rights, they will have them forever.
Except that was a whopping lie. He wasn’t the only one to tell it. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart spun it too. That’s irrelevant. The suffering that has flowed from that lie is immeasurable. It has impacted millions of families. The Vienna Convention, or the law on treaties, applies only at state, not individual level. It is impossible to believe those four law-makers – one now the prime minister, two now Cabinet ministers and the fourth recently elevated to the Lords – didn’t know that.
As time goes on, Rees-Mogg’s lies become all the more outrageous. During the ‘Business of the House’ debate on September 3rd, 2020, he claimed: “The Government and, as Leader of the House, I believe that scrutiny leads to better government…” Yes, the man who flew to Scotland to hand deliver the recommendation to the Queen that parliament should be illegally prorogued for five weeks so as to avoid the inconvenience of scrutiny claims to be a big fan of — *checks notes* — ‘scrutiny’.
Colour me surprised then, that Rees-Mogg has announced he is abolishing the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union to prevent it from scrutinising the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). It proves beyond doubt that the Brexiters’ talk of sovereignty was specious. They only ever meant a few besuited blokes in government to have more power, not the people through their elected representatives in parliament.
Rees-Mogg had already stymied scrutiny by allowing only five hours of parliamentary time to discuss the deal. How much scrutiny do you think a 1200-page document, issued just days before, can receive in five hours? One per cent of what was needed? Half a per cent? Less? MPs spent weeks debating the EU’s Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. The TCA, being more important to this country than both of those treaties combined, should have received at least as much time. In default of proper scrutiny from the House of Commons, we at least had the select committee, ably chaired by Hilary Benn, to fall back on… Enter stage-left Tartuffe Rees-Mogg to put a stop to that.
Social media is exploding with stories of companies whose business model is imploding because, now that they have the detail of the deal, they are discovering it prevents them from doing this, that or the other. The transition was meant to be a period of implementation of the deal. After all, it is best practice to run new systems and processes in parallel with the old for a while to iron out the bugs and train people up on them. Our government gobbled up the whole of transition to negotiate a deal. Johnson really meant it when he said, “F*ck business”, and has thrown British companies to the wolves at a time when we are experiencing the biggest economic downturn in 300 years due to Covid-19. Michael Gove has even had to upgrade his Brexit warning from “there will be bumps” to “there will be significant disruption”. The scrutiny provided by the select committee would be invaluable for businesses struggling to make sense of the TCA.
It is all the more surprising that leading Brexiters avoid scrutiny, when you consider many of them, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, are writers. The first thing I learned when I started training as a writer was that feedback, even (possibly, especially) if it is negative, is the best help you can get to improve your work. If, instead of running away from constructive criticism our government listened to it, the result would be better policy, fewer errors and a dramatic reduction in embarrassing u-turns.
Our venerable British Tartuffe has coloured himself Trumpian orange: his toxic lies and scurrilous stunts are straight out of Trump’s playbook, corroding our democracy. True, Rees-Mogg is more discreet in his admiration for white supremacists than some other Tories. After all, he has only been caught giving an after-dinner speech to a far right group, secretly meeting with Steve Bannon in a Mayfair hotel, and writing a hagiography of Donald Trump for The Times (in which he claimed Trump would be our greatest ally post-‘proper’-Brexit, so right about now…). Oh, and he endorsed Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential election.
Ultimately, the fictional Tartuffe got his come-uppance. It is a measure of the success of Rees-Mogg’s theatrical act, cos-playing a Victorian aristocrat, that Britain’s Tartuffe has yet to receive his. If only the electorate could see beyond his unctuous politeness and affected bonhomie to his callous heart…
Whether you voted left or right, remain or leave, the need for proper scrutiny should not be controversial or a partisan issue. I know we here at West Country Bylines often ask you to write to your MPs, but yet again, we are confronted by an issue of critical importance. A government that receives only limited scrutiny is more likely to make mistakes, and the impact of governmental mistakes can be life-changing – even lethal – for citizens, so it is inappropriate for government to limit scrutiny.
The suppression of the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union is a Trumpist act of interference in parliamentary scrutiny, and Trumpism isn’t good enough for our country. It has been discredited. Take a stand against it. Write to your MP, and to Tartuffe Rees-Mogg in his capacity of ‘Lord President of the Council’, to demand that the select committee be reinstated and sign this petition. Rees-Mogg allegedly works for you. Make him deliver.
Postscript from the editor : Rees-Mogg, in a seeming act of wanton trolling of fishermen and the electorate, generally, saw fit to lower the bar of parliamentary debate yet further with this gem:
For additional reading on Jacob Rees-Mogg, see:
Great balls of carping solecism! + other chart-topping gags by Jacob Rees Mogg, also by Sadie Parker
Is callousness a vote-winner? Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to think so, by Anthea Simmons