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London: Britain could be heading towards an "accidental" change of Prime Minister and an unceremonious crash out of the European Union, the influential Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned.
But he said Australia's experience – changing prime ministers so often that they had become "short let" or "Airbnb" leaders – showed why it was more important to get Britain's withdrawal from the EU right, rather than replacing Theresa May with a more pro-Brexit leader.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, looks at Boris Johnson, the former UK foreign secretary, earlier this year.Credit:Bloomberg
Rees-Mogg, whose stunning political rise has been coined "Moggmentum", has emerged as the leading backbench voice pushing for a strong Brexit, and he is favoured by Tory party members to become the next leader.
Speaking exclusively to Fairfax Media from the London offices of his hedge fund, Somerset Capital Management, Rees-Mogg insisted that there was no plot to bring down Theresa May, with whom he is at odds over Brexit.
"As you see from Australian politics, changing your leader regularly doesn't actually help the party very much in power. And it looks as if from Turnbull's byelection results that the electorate don't like it much either."
However he warned May's leadership would be under strain if her Brexit plan was rejected by the Commons, leaving the UK with no option other than a "No Deal Brexit" – an outcome he said was now most likely.
Mr Rees-Mogg said he had enjoyed numerous "wonderful visits" to Australia as part of his hedge fund work but found Australian politics "quite hard to keep up with."
"You change prime minister rather more often than we do," he said.
An accident-prone Britain
Fairfax Media interviewed Rees-Mogg before Boris Johnson's Remainer brother, Jo Johnson, quit his ministerial position over May's Brexit direction, demanding a second referendum. It was also before reports emerged that four more ministers may depart May's government.
Even so, Rees-Mogg identified "two risks at the moment in British politics".
Theresa May.Credit:Simon Dawson
"One is the risk of an accidental leadership election and the other is an accidental departure from the European Union without any agreement having been made. There's no great campaign but it could just happen without anybody really planning … and that could happen at any point, it's not under anybody's specific control," he said.
Rees-Mogg believes it was unlikely May will win enough support from either remainers or leavers for whatever deal she agrees with the EU to pass in the Commons. So a "No Deal" – with Britain exiting Europe on March 30 without an agreement about the terms – is now the "most likely option at the moment." May would find that scenario difficult to survive, he said.
"Would there be a strain on her position? Inevitably, it would be silly of me to pretend otherwise. Would she be able to survive it? Yes of course. Prime Ministers can always survive, but it would not be easy."
Asked if he wanted May to lead the party to the next election, due in 2022, Rees-Mogg said the next election was a long way off and it "depends on what happens".
"The office of the prime minister is a leasehold not a freehold, as you know very well in Australia [although] in Australia it's a short let!" he said.
"If we got to this accidental No Deal that the government had not embraced, that is very risky for a government."
Boris Johnson the only reason Leave won
Rees-Mogg, who since January has been the chair of the influential European Research Group, which is made up of hard Brexiteer MPs, rejected suggestions that former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was using Brexit to advance his leadership ambitions and said it was actually the opposite.
Boris Johnson delivers a speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in October.Credit:Bloomberg
"Because … most people thought Leave would lose, in which case he alienated David Cameron, he wasn't going to get a post and he was going to be a former Mayor of London, so I think he's a much more principled Brexiteer than he's given credit for.
"Had he been on the Remain side he'd have been in pole position to be the leader of the party up against George Osborne in 2018 or 2019.
He said Johnson, who is widely viewed to be campaigning to replace May since quitting the cabinet, was the "the key that tips the scale" when it came to Leave winning. However, because of Brexit, Boris was no longer the "absolute unifier that he was".
"[Leave] needed the work that had been done by UKIP, it needed Michael Gove on board. It needed the Vote Leave campaign but it absolutely definitely needed Boris."
Rees Mogg opposes a second referendum on the subject. However, Leave would win again if such a referendum was held, he said, because it would be not about Europe but about democracy and the validity of the first vote.
Even if Remain was to win, he would immediately call for a third referendum.
Don't fear a clean Brexit
Rees-Mogg said "it would be silly to pretend there wouldn't be any problems" with a No Deal Brexit. However, this was "partly because the government hasn't prepared" for it.
Under that scenario, Britain would not change anything at the borders and EU nationals would still enjoy free movement rights to work, but not settle, for an unspecified amount of time.
"Actually you'd wake up on the 30th of March and find that the lights still switch on, your alarm clock still wakes you up at some ungodly hour, and you get a wake-up coffee and food kept on coming in and medicines," he said.
"We're in control of what comes into the country. We may not be in control of what goes out but we are in control of what comes in.
And you simply say, 'Well, we will have our own implementation period and for the time being we're leaving things as they are'.
"It's not particularly worrying. It's not panic. It just needs the government to get a grip of it and say that's what it's doing."
Asked if a generous implementation period under a No Deal Brexit would defeat the purpose of the Leave campaign's promise to "take back control," Rees Mogg said: "You need to be ready to take control."
On Tuesday, Jacob Rees-Mogg on the crisis in conservatism.
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