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article imageTory Brexiteers fight back with Moggmentum

By Alice RITCHIE (AFP)     Oct 3, 2017 in Politics

Fearing their version of Brexit may be losing ground, right-wing members of Britain's ruling Conservatives are using their party conference to speak out -- led by a media-savvy traditionalist drawing packed crowds.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson fired the starting gun last month with an article outlining Britain's glorious future outside the European Union, followed up last weekend with an interview setting out his "red lines".

Accused of disloyalty, Johnson largely kept a low profile at this week's conference in Manchester, northwest England, leaving MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to rally eurosceptics with back-to-back fringe meetings.

Delegates have queued around the block to hear about the benefits of a clean break from the EU from Rees-Mogg, an eccentric with a cut-glass accent, charm and wit.

"The government has been too eeyore-ish," he told one overflowing event, referring to the pessimistic character in the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne.

He said there was "nothing to fear" from leaving the bloc without a deal, and rejected warnings of the economic damage of quitting Europe's single market.

"Brexit is a fabulous opportunity for us to prosper," he said to huge cheers.

His upbeat call for Britain to stand firm has resonated at a crucial time in Brexit talks, when Prime Minister Theresa May has started making concessions that would ease the break with the EU.

"People need to be more optimistic. It's all about being proud of our nation," said Lawrence Mitchell, 26, who came on his day off to hear Rees-Mogg speak.

In his conference speech Tuesday, Johnson avoided further rows by backing May, but said it was time to "seize the opportunities" of Brexit.

"It is time to stop treating the referendum result as though it were a plague of boils," he said to huge cheers.

- Moggmentum -

A devout Catholic born into a life of privilege, who only wears suits and takes his nanny campaigning, Rees-Mogg is an unexpected hit with young people.

He is regularly stopped for selfies and has 44,000 followers on Instagram, where he regularly posts pictures of his family -- including his sixth child, baby Sixtus.

British Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg (R) is a hit with young people
British Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg (R) is a hit with young people
Oli SCARFF, AFP

"He's an honest, brilliant politician, who has such charisma and isn't afraid to say what he thinks," said 20-year-old student Daniel Collins.

Such is the support that an online movement -- #Moggmentum -- grew this summer to get him into Downing Street.

The 48-year-old laughs this off, saying it is "not serious" -- and certainly his opposition to gay marriage and abortion are unlikely to appeal to the wider public.

One event in Manchester was interrupted by protesters calling him "despicable". As one man was led off by security, Rees-Mogg said with typical good manners that it was "very nice to have met you".

- 'Martyrs for Brexit' -

In Florence last month, May announced plans for a transition period of two years after Brexit in March 2019, in which Britain keeps paying into the EU budget and trades "on current terms".

But this raised concerns among eurosceptics who want to end ties as soon as possible, particularly on the contentious issues of immigration and the jurisdiction of EU law.

Delegates at one meeting shouted down calls for May to sack Johnson, and Rees-Mogg said the foreign secretary's views were "wonderful".

Andrea Leadsom, the pro-Brexit leader of the House of Commons, also appeared to stretch government policy when she too used a fringe to call for a clean break.

"We are leaving the European Union in March 2019... we will be taking back control of our money, our borders and our laws," she said.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, said the eurosceptics were stepping up their rhetoric because "the crunch is coming".

They can either "stop Mrs May compromising, or if they can't persuade her, go out all guns blazing and become martyrs for Brexit", he told AFP.

EU leaders will meet later this month to assess the progress of Brexit negotiations, after the European Parliament on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly for a motion saying more was needed to move the talks forward.

May said she did not want a cabinet of "yes men" but wanted "different voices" around her.

But Grant warned: "She's going to have to take hard decisions in the next few weeks. She's going to have to take sides."

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