Jacob Rees-Mogg has said Conservative MPs must seize their chance to topple Theresa May or face the prospect of her leading the party into the next election, though he denied Eurosceptics had been humiliated by their failure so far to trigger a leadership vote.
Rees-Mogg, the backbench Brexiter who chairs the European Research Group of Eurosceptic MPs, said there were very few of his colleagues who wanted the prime minister to continue to lead the party into 2022.
Asked whether it might prove difficult to secure the 158 votes needed to oust the prime minister in a confidence vote, he said: “I would wait and see about that.”
“Basically, if there is a vote of confidence it is not just for a year. Getting the 48 letters has shown to be quite difficult, so the idea that in a year you just repeat the process and then she would go at that point I don’t think that is realistic.
“I think it is now or the prime minister will lead the Conservatives into the next election. You find MPs privately who will say to you they think that is a really good idea in any number and I would be quite surprised.”
The number of letters publicly submitted to Brady declaring no confidence in May reached 26 on Monday, well short of the tally needed, though Eurosceptic MPs insisted more had been submitted privately.
A total of 48 MPs must write to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbenchers’ 1922 Committee in order to trigger a full confidence vote – 15% of the parliamentary party.
“Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace,” Rees-Mogg said. “We will see what letters come in due time. Do 47 want to come with me or not? I may find that they don’t or they don’t do it today but when we get the meaningful vote. That’s a decision for them.”
Overnight, critics of the prime minister did little to hide their frustration that a confidence vote had not yet been triggered. Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister and ERG member, suggested MPs who had promised to submit letters had secretly not done so.
Rees-Mogg insisted he had not predicted that the contest would be triggered this week, and suggested more colleagues would follow if the prime minister loses the vote on her Brexit deal in parliament.
“I made no forecast last week about when the letters will come in, we’ll just have to wait and see what people do,” he said. “I haven’t been running a count. What people do is a matter for them.”
Asked if his argument against the deal had been weakened by the failure of MPs to submit letters, he said: “It is not about the strength or weakness of the argument, it’s about whether tactically think now is the time to have a vote of confidence.
“I’m not making forecasts about when letters will go in. I’ve said what I’ve said, some other people have followed, some people are doing so privately.”
Asked if it was a humiliation, Rees-Mogg said: “I think this is exaggerated language, it has been something not everyone wanted to do. That’s political life. Not everyone will always agree with me.”
Rees-Mogg was speaking at an event convened by the ERG and Brexiter group Global Britain, alongside former Brexit secretary David Davis, where the panel had presented what they claimed were “defeatist” fears about leaving the customs union.
Lord Lilley, the former Conservative cabinet minister and one of the authors of the pamphlet, said: “The proposed EU agreement is the result of defeatist negotiating stemming from a complete lack of understanding about how international trade actually works.
“I spent 10 days incarcerated in the Heysel Stadium negotiating the Uruguay Round, which set up the WTO. Its rules provide the safety net our businesses and consumers need in exactly this sort of situation. It will ensure that the EU will have to trade with the UK on exactly the same terms as it offers its other major trading partners.”
Lilley said that he still believed May could change course. “There is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repenteth, than 99 just men with no need to repentance. Let us hope.”