Since his Grenfell gaffe in the last election, Jacob Rees-Mogg has kept a much lower media profile, to the consternation of sketch writers across the nation. The Leader of the House now mostly saves his quips, riffes and various bon mots for his appearances at the dispatch box, announcing the government timetable or rapping New Order.
Fortunately the 'Honourable Member for the 18th century' does still maintain a regular podcast with ConservativeHome to offer us glimpses into his true feelings about various shenanigans in Westminster and Whitehall. Ahead of the easing of Covid restrictions next Monday, the North East Somerset MP was asked about the future of face masks, given the detectable shift in tone from ministers in the past week.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons yesterday that 'it is expected and recommended' people should wear face coverings in places like public transport and Boris Johnson told his press conference ;we expect and recommend that people wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet.'
But for Rees-Mogg the position was about context and common sense:
“This morning, I wandered around the Palace of Westminster wearing a mask and met almost nobody. In those circumstances, I will not be wearing a mask, what would be the point? From whom am I protecting myself or whom am I protecting? So, then you get to the question of, if you’re in a very crowded space, would you decide that you wanted to wear a mask. Well you may, but if you’ve had both vaccines your risk of transmitting the disease is slight so in a way you’ve done your societal bit by having the vaccine as much as by wearing a mask, which is why I think it is sensibly individual choice. So would I really doubt it completely? No, I may find that there are circumstances where I feel it would good manners to wear a mask. Am I going to wear one with any enthusiasm? No, I never have worn one with enthusiasm but I see there might be circumstances where it may be advisable.
Rees-Mogg prefaced his comments by remarking on what he believed to be the core ideological distinctions between Labour and the Conservatives. Responding to the shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth's support for the continuation of mandatory face coverings, Rees-Mogg blamed it on the opposition party's support for the notion of ‘collective control’:
“The inner socialist is currently coming out in the Labour party. Given the ability to do so, the socialist would tell us what time to get up in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, what time to travel into work, what work we should do, what time we should have our lunch hour, what lunch we should eat, when we should go home, how many children we should have as they do in China. You know, this is what socialists believe in, they believe in collective control. The conservative doesn’t, the conservative believes you can work out for yourself whether you should travel on a bicycle or in a car. You should decide for yourself whether to have Weetabix or in my case just a cup of black coffee or whether you prefer to have a fry up, a deep fried Mars bar for your breakfast, whatever it is, we believe in individual liberty, individual responsibility and we recognise that people make better decisions for themselves than the government can make for them. And that’s the key: the collective is in fact best served by thousands, millions of individual decisions made by intelligent people, as opposed to the man in Whitehall thinking he knows best, as a former Labour Cabinet minister said.
Individual responsibility? Whitehall not knowing what’s best? A breakfast fry up? After the past sixteen months of controls, restrictions, calorie counts and government diktat, such fighting talk is tantamount to near heresy within certain quarters of the Johnson regime.
Let's hope the Cabinet minister's own (metaphorical) mask slips again in his future podcast interviews.