Boris Johnson now heads up a Brexit-focussed Conservative government, prominently featuring Jacob Rees-Mogg. Brexit has already had a profound effect on both men, in their personal as well as professional lives. As well as those pending career boosts, Brexit has fuelled familial breaks in party allegiance, in opposite directions.
In the European elections, Rachel Johnson was the lead candidate for the former Change UK in the south-west, while Annunziata Rees-Mogg’s explosive defection to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party ended over three decades of Conservative membership.
The havoc wreaked by the Brexit bull in the china shop of British politics has cut to the heart of what adenoidal sceptics might call ‘the establishment’ – all the way to their dinner tables, in fact. Even in two of the most staunchly Tory households in the land, differences over Brexit policy drove brother from sister and forged whole new political identities.
Of course, the defections of Johnson and Rees-Mogg were hardly identical. In the latter case, Annunziata had been a member of the Conservative Party for thirty-five years, during which time she stood for Parliament twice. She had no explicit desire to re-enter politics, especially wearing a different coloured rosette to the one she had born for the length of her political career.
She wrote during the European election campaign that “it was a wrench to leave [the Conservative Party]”. She continued: “We were promised our vote would be honoured and it has not been. It has been disregarded by remote, elitist politicians in London who believe they know better than the people who put them there. We, the people of the United Kingdom, everyone who believes in democracy must show them they are wrong.”
In other words, Annunziata’s decision to resign her Tory membership and ally with Nigel Farage was not a careerist move. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just like the Brexit Party’s very existence, her decision pivots solely on that star-crossed day in June 2016 and its implications for the future of British democracy. She may have left the Conservative Party, but she has not abandoned Conservativism.
On the other hand, Rachel Johnson was doing a Chuka before it was cool. She was a serial party switcher long before many of her Remainer colleagues, having jumped ship from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats all the way back in 2017.
She managed to stay with the Lib Dems for all of two years, before lunging toward the shiny new kids on the block and defecting once again to join Change UK in April of this year. A mere few weeks had passed before she duly turned against and began lambasting her new party, when it became clear that it was all going to pot. It seems, therefore, that in the case of Rachel Johnson, this year’s ostensibly Brexit-driven change of party may have been rather more opportunistic than principled.
In this vein, it is also interesting to note that familial relations in the Rees-Mogg household appear – from the outside, at least – rather more cordial than among members of the Johnson family. Jacob continues to heap lavish and fulsome praise on his sister, speaking movingly of his heartache at her decision to leave the Conservatives and his continuing admiration for her capabilities as a politician and a campaigner.
Meanwhile, Rachel Johnson can often be seen nonchalantly arraigning her elder sibling for something or other. Most recently, she laid into Boris over his call over his proclamation that migrants should have to learn English. “We spoke Ancient Greek at home and I genuinely don’t know what he’s on about,” came her retort.
It seems that these political differences have much deeper roots among the Johnsons than the Rees-Moggs. On every matter except Brexit, Annunziata Rees-Mogg is, in effect, a Conservative. Conversely, Rachel Johnson’s problems with her brothers’ party appears to extend far beyond Britain’s relationship with Europe.
While Rachel has spent the time since the European elections wallowing in Change’s failure, Annunziata has been fighting the good fight in Brussels. Even if you disagree with her – and, as a Tory member, I often do – it is difficult not to appreciate the genuine fervour she injects into every aspect of her political life.
Whereas British Europhilia of the kind Rachel espouses is far from new, belief in Brexit is a recent and urgent defence of the integrity of our politics. Where Rachel is half-heartedly opposing Brexit because she objects to the politics behind it and quietly resents the driving factors that made it possible, Annunziata is fighting for Brexit because she believes both in it and in our democracy.