LONDON (Reuters) - A millionaire Brexiteer who cultivates the image of an English gentleman from another century, Jacob Rees-Mogg is one of the unlikely winners of the 2016 referendum and is the bookmakers’ favorite to become next leader of the Conservative Party.
His foes dismiss Rees-Mogg, always immaculately turned out in a double-breasted suit, as a hidebound reactionary, but he leads a powerful group of lawmakers that Prime Minister Theresa May must mollify as she tries to forge a Brexit divorce in Brussels.
May has so far shown some skill at keeping her dual negotiation with the EU and her lawmakers on track, though the 30-year schism inside her party over Europe helped sink the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron.
By dangling the prize of eventual Brexit, May has managed to sell a transition deal to her Brexiteer lawmakers that preserves almost all aspects of Britain’s EU membership for 21 months after its formal exit on March 29, 2019.
“The reality is we will leave on the 31st of December 2020 at the end of the transition period,” Rees-Mogg told Reuters. “I am not keen on the transition phase but I can cope with it as long as it leads to a full departure from the European Union.”
“Do I think we should have been tougher? Yes I do. I think we should have been tougher in the transition period but it is the end-state that really matters.”
For Rees-Mogg, full Brexit means leaving the customs union, the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice while taking control of Britain’s borders and ensuring that any laws are approved by the Westminster parliament.
“That is what I expect to see delivered,” Rees-Mogg said. “I can’t imagine that the prime minister would bring forward any proposals that I would be uncomfortable with.”
His Brexit views were once far-fetched in Britain. Just two decades ago, then-Labour prime minister Tony Blair, a centrist, aspired to put the country at the “heart of Europe” and considered taking it into the euro.
Fast forward to 2018, and euroskeptics of the right such as Rees-Mogg and of the left such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn - who backed staying in the EU but with scant enthusiasm - have seen their popularity rise in the world’s sixth largest economy.
Both are now considered possible future prime ministers.
Rees-Mogg, 48, appears to revel in his image as a patrician with the common touch.
The beneficiary of a privileged English education, he owns both a 1936 Bentley and a 1968 Bentley, he still talks of his nanny and has a private fortune. Fellow lawmakers call him “the honorable member for the 18th Century”.
Is the posh persona for real?
“Oh. Um. I am as I am and I have been as I am for all of my life,” he said. “Do you think anybody in their right mind would invent my persona on a blank sheet of paper? It therefore must be real.”
“Who would invent this particular image? It is just who I am,” he said in his Westminster office where a picture of Robert Peel, a 19th century Conservative premier who split his party when he repealed the protectionist corn laws, hangs on the wall.
Yet he is popular in his party and among some younger voters. In a poll of Conservative members, he was the favorite to be the next leader, ahead of Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, also both Brexiteers.
Betting markets give him a 20 percent chance of being the next leader while Johnson, once the favorite and now his closest rival, has just a 9 percent chance.
‘Moggmania’, as it has been dubbed, has astonished him as well as the entire British political establishment which is still reeling from Corbyn’s popularity, or ‘Corbynmania’.
“Rees-Mogg’s appeal is similar to that of Corbyn,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College in London.
“Despite his old-fashioned exterior and views, he is not seen as part of the political mainstream and that counts as authenticity in the new era of populism,” said Menon.
Rees-Mogg says voters want leaders who are genuine, even if their views are out of synch with the prevailing consensus. His own opposition to abortion and same sex marriage, rooted in his Roman Catholic faith, distances him from the modern liberal consensus in Britain.
“The electorate wants politicians who say what they think rather than spin that was so successfully employed by politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the United States,” he said. “The age of spin has passed.”
“I’ve made it very clear that I do not seek to impose a theocracy in the United Kingdom,” he said. “I am not an Ayatollah of Somerset, and that the views I have as a practising Catholic are fairly conventional Christian views.”
The son of a former editor of The Times newspaper, Rees-Mogg was raised by his nanny - who now looks after his own six children - and he then studied at Eton, an exclusive private school, and Oxford University, where he studied history.
He joined J. Rothschild investment management in 1991, focusing on emerging markets, and later worked in Hong Kong.
On the eve of the financial crisis, he jokes, he set up Somerset Capital Management with two others in 2007. It now has $9.6 billon under management.
“Oh I loved it. It was the most interesting work outside politics,” he said.
He refused to give a figure on his personal wealth or comment on reports that he is worth over 100 million pounds.
After campaigning for election to parliament in various seats, he eventually was elected in 2010 for North East Somerset, where, he said, his Mogg ancestors moved in 1618.
When asked if he gave up high finance to become prime minister, he chuckles: “I am a backbench MP.”
“I am fully supporting Mrs May. There is no vacancy, nor do I want there to be a vacancy. I want her to carry on. I think she is providing the leadership the nation needs.”
But if May ceased to be leader? “To represent one’s own community in the oldest and greatest parliament in the world: if that doesn’t satisfy somebody’s ambition then I hate to think what would.”
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones