BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Sighing at the sight of a queue of hundreds of people that snaked its way around the conference centre and out of the door, one Conservative Party member complained: “They should have put him on the main stage”.
The hot ticket? Not Prime Minister Theresa May or any of her ministers, but a pro-Brexit rally with leading eurosceptic member of parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg. It was a scene that played out every time he appeared at an event on the sidelines of the conference.
With less than six months to go until Britain leaves the EU, May is yet to reach an exit deal and with her future uncertain, it is her potential successors who are drawing the crowds at the party’s annual conference.
Rees-Mogg, a millionaire who cultivates the image of an English gentleman, received a celebrity welcome; asked to pose for selfies with delegates and mobbed by press photographers.
Fellow eurosceptic Boris Johnson, the bookmaker’s favourite to replace May, is the only one to challenge him in the popularity stakes. Rees-Mogg backed Johnson for the leadership in 2016, before the former London mayor withdrew.
Johnson ranks well above Rees-Mogg in grassroots website ConservativeHome’s poll of who should be the next leader, but with the former foreign secretary only appearing at conference for one day, it was Rees-Mogg who had the enduring following.
“To those of you who I overtook in the queue, my apologies for queue-barging. I’ve always thought it is very un-English to push ahead to the front of the queue so you are all very kind to let me come in,” Rees-Mogg greeted the crowd.
Asked why he is such a draw, Rees-Mogg fans repeatedly used the same words to describe the willowy, bespectacled 49-year-old: “honest”, “decent” and “genuine”.
“He just tells it as it is,” said Sonia Gosbee, a Conservative member from Kent in southeast England, who turned up to see Rees-Mogg speak two days running.
“People like Jacob Rees-Mogg ... they listen to what is going on but they still keep their steel, I think Theresa May has lost her steel.”
Chairman of the influential European Research Group of anti-EU Conservative members of parliament, Rees-Mogg received a rapturous round of applause as he rubbished May’s Brexit plans.
“It is not only a dying duck in a thunderstorm it is the deadest dying duck in any thunderstorm,” said Rees-Mogg, dressed in his trademark double-breasted suit.
He favours a free trade deal based on the one agreed between the EU and Canada — something May says would create an unacceptable border between Northern Ireland and the rest of mainland Britain. If not Canada, Rees-Mogg wants World Trade Organization terms.
“Don’t fear leaving on world trade terms,” he urged. “We would be able immediately to get on and trade with the world. We wouldn’t have an implementation period ... 21 months of vassalage.”
Rees-Mogg, who received a standing ovation, said that outside the EU, Britain could do more to help the poorest in society, getting rid of tariffs on some clothes and food and curbing low-skilled immigration.
When one man shouted “sack the woman” at mention of May, Rees-Mogg quipped “certainly not”. Asked if he would run for leader if May was toppled, he said the party should back her.
“I know, I know,” he said when they booed his answer.
“I understand why there is concern but ... it would be very hard for anybody to push through a really ambitious Brexit policy at this stage,” he said, citing the slim majority the Conservatives, supported by a small Northern Irish party, have in parliament.
Some have reservations. His opposition to abortion and same sex marriage, rooted in his Roman Catholic faith, distances him from the modern liberal consensus in Britain. Some MPs call him “the honourable member for the 18th Century”.
“I detest his social views but he has the right opinions on where we should go with Brexit,” said one Conservative member.
Many beyond the party see him as out of touch but it is the Conservative members who get to select the next prime minister if May goes, and his supporters believe he can win people round.
Lisa Parker, a Conservative councillor from Rugby in central England, queued for two hours to hear Rees-Mogg speak and planned to do the same for fellow grassroots favourite Johnson when he appears on Tuesday.
“If the country could see what we saw in the last hour they’d be as charmed as we all were and impressed by just how much he loves this country,” she said of Rees-Mogg. Would she like to see him as leader? “I still have a soft spot for Boris,” she said, smiling.
Additional reporting William James and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg