Jacob Rees-Mogg's protest encounter makes him an unlikely trend-setter

Emma Haslett
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Unlikely trend-setter: Rees-Mogg's comments prompted grudging respect. (Source: Getty)

Whisper it, but Jacob Rees-Mogg might be onto something. The notoriously fusty Tory backbencher may be as trendy as a Victorian granddad, but after an encounter with a protester at a conference event, he may have set an example for politicians and business leaders everywhere.

The Tory backbencher was interrupted during a fringe event at this week’s Conservative Party conference by a protester shouting “shame on you” and “you’re a despicable person”.

Instead of summoning security, Mogg replied: “what do you disagree with me about?” “Everything!” the protester yelled back. “Mention something specific,” said Rees Mogg cooly, before his opponent listed several of the MP’s more controversial opinions, on matters including austerity and abortion.

What followed was Rees-Mogg trying to engage the man in debate. “It’s important to have the conversation,” he said. “You’re welcome to talk to me, but it’s difficult if your intention is merely to shout and wave leaflets.” The protester waved his leaflet again and yelled “everything you say is despicable”. “Well, very nice to have met you,” finished Rees-Mogg with a sigh.

Rees-Mogg's behaviour during the encounter deserves a grudging respect. In an age where everyone from politicians to corporate leaders is afraid of having an opinion that could be deemed even vaguely controversial, lest they incite a round of social media outrage, Rees-Mogg’s attempt at inciting reasoned debate seems, well, human.

It is not just politicians (Donald Trump aside) who could benefit from being similarly frank about their own views, no matter how controversial they appear, but corporate leaders as well. PR teams will warn them against appearing to have opinions on anything, from Brexit to the X-Factor - but the gains are there for the taking.

At a time when confidence in the free market is running low, a little candour and personality from those at the top would be a refreshing change from bland, stage-managed appearances. Corporate chiefs often spend whole interviews avoiding answering questions: the result is that they seem less trustworthy than if they had given a straight answer in the first place - further widening the gulf between business leaders and the public.

What would be the harm if, like Rees-Mogg, they chose instead to engage in debate and thrash out their views, however unpopular they might be? Twitter might take badly to it for 24 hours, but then it will move on. The rewards for honesty, originality and candour are not only available to politicians. You never know, if business leaders gave it a go it could, in a small way, help to rebuild faith in (and a connection with) the corporate world.

Read more: Rees-Mogg accuses two govt departments of disrupting Brexit process

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