25 Feb 2014

The Mogg in South Shields: blunt answers and ‘fat ladies’

When Conservative MP Jacob “The Mogg” Rees-Mogg travelled to the north east with Channel 4 News, he was harangued and rebuffed by locals – and then spent a session as a bingo caller.

The blue rosette is like a target. Proudly pinned to the lapel of a long double-breasted overcoat, it invites looks of bewilderment and some hostility, writes Tim Bouverie.

“Hello! I’m a Conservative MP.” These are strange words to the people in the Labour stronghold of South Shields, particularly coming from the fruity tones of the member for North East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Rees-Mogg, or The Mogg as he is increasingly known, is in the north east with Channel 4 News on a mission to find out why South Shields has never returned a Conservative member of parliament. On the way up he tells me how he loves meeting people on the street: “It’s like swimming, you may think it’s a bit cold but once you get in it’s a great pleasure.”

Rebellion and riots

I now watch with interest as he puts his toe in the water. “Why do you think South Shields has never had a Conservative MP?” he asks a man outside Boots.

“Because it’s always been Labour.” The Mogg seems slightly thrown by this blunt circular logic but ploughs on nonetheless. “And are you a Labour man?” No, he’s a Conservative and Rees-Mogg, relieved, pumps his hand. “Marvellous!”

The Mogg is being harangued by a Labour woman who looks like she would rather take a dip in the Tyne than vote Tory.

The next person we meet is also a Tory and, while JRM is clearly delighted, I am beginning to wonder if we have got off at the wrong stop. Then: “Maggie Thatcher started and you lot are finishing it! This country will end up in rebellion and riots! It’s going that way and all because of the Conservatives and their bloody stupid policies!”

The Mogg is being harangued by a Labour woman who is attracted by Ukip but looks like she would rather take a dip in the Tyne than vote Tory. He is, of course, impeccably polite and thanks the woman for explaining her views so frankly but she is immune to his charm.

‘Already up there’

We move into the market square and JRM heads to the sweet stall where he buys a “quarter” of rhubarb and custard sweets in exchange for some political Q&A.

What does the couple behind the counter think of the Conservatives? “The thing is,” replies the proprietress, keen, it seems, not to cause offence, “Labour is more for working-class people and Conservative is more for the people that are already up there.”

The Mogg explains that Conservatives want to help people get “up there” – “the party of aspiration” – but this message isn’t widely recognised in the marketplace.

“We’ve been completely ignored by the government” says a man who has voted Conservative all his life. “What can we do to win seats in the north east?” asks Rees-Mogg. “You can’t,” comes the reply, anti-Toryism is “too deeply ingrained”.

We leave the city centre in search of fresh air and perhaps fresh opinions on the sea front, but before we go a brace of Tangoed, buggy-pushing, lasses hoves into view.

“Hello ladies, would you have a moment to talk to Channel 4 News?”
“Noooooooooo, get away!”
“Oh go on, you’ll be stars…”
“What’s it even about?”
“It’s about voting and South Shield’s support for Labour.”
“I like Labour,” says one of the girls, blowing smoke into our camera lens.
“You like Labour? And why do you like Labour?”
“Because David Cameron’s a p****!”

The Mogg is taken aback.
“OK, that’s a blunt answer…”
“Wasn’t it David Cameron who did the bedroom tax?”
“And does that affect you?”
“Yeah because me Mam’s got four kids and…”

JRM tries to understand the particulars of the case but the buggy is moving resolutely on and we repair to Minchella’s Ice Cream Parlour to meet members of the local Conservative association.

Neglected by the party

Tories are a rare breed in South Shields. Even in the 1950s the party was so unpopular that opponents of Labour had to invent a new, local, right-of-centre party, just to have someone to vote for.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the South Shields Conservative Association is not exactly thriving. George, Edward and Ali (average age c.65) are a little despondent: “We feel a bit neglected by the Conservative party,” explains George.

Seizing the initiative, Ali asks The Mogg to accompany him to the local mosque, Unfortunately, when we arrive the place is deserted.

Few Tory politicians venture into the electoral desert that is South Shields. “We did get some new members,” explains Edward, “but they didn’t renew… We don’t have much to offer them.”

Rees-Mogg is having none of this. These are the “heroes”, the “backbone of the party” who proudly fly the flag even in areas where they haven’t got a hope of winning. Ali, who runs an Indian takeaway and has stood as a Conservative councillor at number of local elections, is inspired and, seizing the initiative, asks The Mogg to accompany him to the local mosque. Unfortunately, he has the time wrong and when we arrive the place is deserted.

Irresisistible novelty

Still, The Mogg is revived by the chutzpah of the local association and ready to seek out some “copper-bottomed socialists”. But it is bingo hour at the Royal British Legion club. “Would they like a guest bingo-caller?” I enquire, having had a quick conference with JRM. The novelty is too much to resist and so The Mogg, like an exotic bird lost on migratory flight, ascends the stage.

“Roll up! Roll up, ladies and gentlemen! I am a Conservative member of parliament…”

Cue pantomime boos.

“And I am here to talk to you… and to call the bingo.”

Two fat ladies

Naturally. The first number is 89, and scrolling through the Wikipedia article on his iPhone, JRM observes that this is one number above “two fat ladies”.

“You can’t say that any more,” comes a shout.
“Oh, but there are only thin ladies in here,” he charmingly retorts “so I didn’t think anyone would mind.”

The next 20 minutes are a combination of the bizarre and the endearing as Jacob throws himself into the bingo calling with gusto.

“5 and 2 – 52. Or Danny la Rue if you like…”
“Sweet 16, never been kissed… Yes believe me there are some Tory MPs who’ve never been kissed.” (Who?!)
“57 – Heinz Beans! 57 variety packs.”

And finally: “Ah ha, this is where David lives! Its number 10 – David’s Den.”
“Maggie’s! It was Maggie’s!” insists the floor, remembering their tribal loyalties.

All too soon there is a “house” and the elixir of grotesque joy ceases to flow, but not before a woman dressed as Goldilocks begins singing Que Sera Sera. The Mogg climbs off the stage and glad-hands the crowd, who may disagree with him politically but undoubtedly warm to him personally.

Authentic politician

Rees-Mogg is a good sport, but more than that, he is authentic. There are a few politicians who can get away with the seemingly impossible by being the genuine article (and amusing): Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond. And Jacob Rees-Mogg is one of them.

But what for the Conservatives in the north east? A hopeless cause? With the current electoral system, yes.

But more broadly, Rees-Mogg is right. Many working-class voters are naturally conservative, sometimes even with a large C. There is also a right-wing constituency, as demonstrated by the success of Ukip in the recent South Shields by-election.

There is, however, the collective problem, both perceptive and actual, that the Tories are seen as for the rich; Maggie Thatcher laid waste to the region; and that much of the north, particularly in comparison with the south, still suffers from real poverty, hardship and a lack of opportunity.

With things as they are, it’s not possible to envisage these issues being surmounted any time soon, and policies such as the bedroom tax are clearly exacerbating the situation.

But if they are prepared to listen rather than to preach, if they are prepared to engage rather than deny, then the Conservatives could do far worse than head north and call bingo.

Tim Bouverie (@TimPBouverie) is a producer for Channel 4 News