Chairing the European Research Group may not sound glamorous, but it gets you places in the Conservative party.
The man who made the ERG’s name as a crack team of Brexiteers ready to march through the voting lobbies to take Britain one step closer to fully leaving the European Union, Steve Baker, entered Government last year. His successor, Suella Fernandes, joined him this month. At this rate, their successor Jacob Rees-Mogg will be in office by Christmas.
He will be no stranger to speculation about his future career trajectory, given the “Moggmentum” craze he started off. Those who thought it had peaked during last year’s Conservative party conference will need to think again, as his takeover of the ERG will ensure it returns with a vengeance.
Mr Rees-Mogg now has the ideal pulpit from which to preach his robust pro-Brexit message. “I want us to leave the EU — heart, soul and mind,” he told Newsnight on Tuesday. “I don’t want the sort of Brexit where, because they’ve given us all sorts of baubles, we have stayed in bits [of the EU] which deny us freedom.”
Such a robust view of Brexit might make it sound like he is destined to be Theresa May‘s worst nightmare. After all, the Prime Minister did warn in her Lancaster Speech a year ago today that there would be ” give and take [and] compromises” in the negotiation process. He has sought to play down his potential awkwardness, up to a point.
“In this role, I am keen to help the Government implement the principles laid down by the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, in her Lancaster House speech,” Mr Rees-Mogg declared on his appointment. “As Chairman, I intend to be helpful, vigorous and supportive towards Government policy of making a success of Brexit.”
Mrs May sketched out her vision a year ago of an “independent, self-governing, global Britain”, free from the Customs Union and Single Market after a time-limited transition period. As the Brexiteers’ tribune, Mr Rees-Mogg will not hesitate to call her out if she looks to be falling short on what she promised to deliver. His genteel manner won’t stop him from holding her to account, as he did last month in warning that her red lines were looking ” a little pink “.
With the Brexit negotiations entering the endgame, Mrs May will be keen to extract terms from Brussels that can satisfy Conservative voters, and her parliamentary colleagues.
As representative of backbench Brexiteer sentiment, Mr Rees-Mogg’s view will be crucial to how her deal is perceived. If the Prime Minister can convince a true ‘beLeaver’ like him, she can credibly boast to have delivered what the millions who voted for Brexit wanted. If she can’t, the end of her leadership would be nigh.
North East Somerset’s MP is the darling of the Conservative grassroots . I’ve never seen a Tory backbencher set out a pro-Brexit case to a hostile Question Time audience better than him. The ability to stay calm and polite under fire stands him in good stead.
He has also had a greater impact with the public as a humble backbencher than many ministers. A recent series of focus groups conducted by Demos found that citizens could only recall a few politicians’ names: Mrs May, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Mr Rees-Mogg.
Such name recognition and appeal among the party ranks means that Mr Rees-Mogg’s movements will be worth watching when the Conservative party comes to decide on its next leader. He will face considerable pressure to stand, and it would not be unreasonable to imagine him winning. If Mrs May is perceived to have caved into Brussels for the sake of a deal, enraged Brexiteers would feel duty-bound to put someone in place who would strike a better one.
Avowed Brexitsceptics like Heidi Allen have made clear their visceral opposition to him taking over, which matters because the Tory election process gives MPs the ability to whittle down contenders before members make the final choice. But there could be so many competing operations (e.g. “Stop Rudd” or “Stop Boris”) among MPs as they try to stop certain candidates that Mr Rees-Mogg sneaks through and makes the cut.
It’s one thing for a lot of members of the public, or the party, to think it’s great fun and admire him for never mincing his words and speaking 18th Century English. It’s another thing to see that translating to being the prime minister and connecting with the whole of the country. So, no, I don’t see it happening.Sir Graham BradyRather than throw himself into such an affray, Mr Rees-Mogg could take stock of the doubts expressed by the likes of backbench chief Sir Graham Brady about his potential appeal (which I sympathise with) and stay out of it. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a big player, as his endorsement would be much sought after by leadership hopefuls.
The next Tory leadership election will be defined by the Brexit negotiations: it will be a process of finding someone to build on whatever historic deal Mrs May gets out of Brussels, or someone to salvage it. Anyone who fancies their chances will need to show they get why the British people voted to leave the EU, and what they wanted out of it. If Mr Rees-Mogg approves of them, Brexiteer MPs and primarily Leave-leaning party members would follow.
The ERG has become somewhat of a springboard onto higher office. Mr Rees-Mogg, subject to endless speculation about his own potential, will make the most of his new role as the Brexiteers’ champion. Where that leads him remains to be seen. If he decides not to go for the Tory crown, he stands to have a big say over who will next wear it.