Has Robert Jenrick gone rogue? Well, that was the charge of shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock, who rose to interrogate his opposite number at Home Office questions on Monday, the first since Suella Braverman’s unceremonious sacking as the department chief.
Aiming down the barrel of the despatch box, Kinnock said of Jenrick, the number two at the Home Office since his appointment in October last year: “The immigration minister has become a law unto himself”.
“First”, Kinnock contended, “he briefed the media that he has been instructing the prime minister to tear up all our legal obligations to fix the unfixable Rwanda policy.
“Then he set himself on a collision course with his new home secretary by appearing to bet the house on the Rwanda flights taking off”.
“Not at all”, James Cleverly interjected from a sedentary position. Jenrick — who boasts a negative -8.9 per cent approval rating among his party membership, according to Conservative Home’s cabinet ranking — rocked his head back and forth, before sharing a knowing look with his new boss.
Wry smiles exchanged and collective responsibility attempted, Kinnock continued: “To add insult to injury, he went behind his new boss’s back to present his laundry list to the prime minister, including a cap on social care visas and abolishing the shortage occupation list”.
“Does the immigration minister have any respect whatsoever for the authority of the new home secretary?”, he closed. By this point, Jenrick’s eyes had darted to the high commons ceiling; his vexation was visible. “Once again, we heard absolutely nothing from the Opposition about what they would actually do”, he mustered in response
It was an effective line of questioning, with a clear underlying narrative: the cabinet-attending immigration minister — a close friend and long-time ally of the prime minister — is taking after his former boss and her freelancing-heavy, collective responsibility-light ways.
Let’s take Kinnock’s allegations in turn.
First, a report did appear in the Telegraph last week that suggested Jenrick is lobbying for the government to adopt a hardline response after the Supreme Court ruled against the Rwanda plan. The report said that Jenrick is firmly behind “four of the five points” that comprise Braverman’s “Plan B” proposal — which had been written up in the same newspaper by the ex-home secretary in the wake of the ruling.
In her “Plan B”, Braverman demands that the prime minister’s post-ruling legislation prohibits legal challenges against the policy and disapplies the “entirety” of the Human Rights Act, the ECHR and other relevant legislation or obligations. Given Jenrick told the commons yesterday that it would be him “piloting” the emergency legislation through the House, his reported positioning here is significant.
Furthermore, on legal migration, it is reported that Jenrick has presented his own five-point plan to No 10 in a bid to force Sunak into adopting a more hardline position. Among the suggestions are a required minimum annual salary of £35,000 in order to receive a work visa, putting a cap on visas for people working in social care and stopping those working in health and social care from bringing dependents with them to the UK.
Jenrick seemed to lean into the reports yesterday as he responded to questions from MPs on the net migration numbers. He told the commons that there were “strong arguments” for an absolute cap on the numbers of immigrants allowed each year, adding: “There are definitely strong arguments for using caps, whether in general or on specific visas — but these are conversations that we need to conclude within government”.
This was Jenrick essentially admitting the division between himself and the home secretary. Indeed, when Cleverly was asked in his recent Times interview if he supported a cap on foreign care workers, he responded coyly: “I am not going to rush to an answer”.
The Home Office under Rishi Sunak has always been a curious, not entirely unified, department. Earlier this month, of course, it was led by Suella Braverman — who had the Home Office essentially surrendered to her during the October 2022 Conservative leadership contest.
Braverman has since insisted her endorsement of Sunak was subject to a “deal”, the core tenets of which the prime minister has reneged on. But policy detail notwithstanding, the purported pact gave Braverman free reign in government to freelance and eschew collective responsibility with her rhetoric — including at the National Conservative conference in Westminster and among right-wing wonks in Washington.
But Braverman’s authority was at every turn tested, prevailing wisdom suggested, by the presence of minister of state Robert Jenrick. The immigration minister was widely considered Rishi Sunak’s “man in the Home Office”, sent in to moderate the views of Braverman and helm the department’s trickiest parliamentary assignments and media assignments. Thus, it was Jenrick — rather than Braverman — who navigated the Illegal Migration Act through its trickiest commons stages and helmed “small boats week” in the summer.
But more than this, and contrary to media expectations, Jenrick did not shy away from the discursive elements of his brief. In April, for example, he told a Policy Exchange event that migration threatened to “cannibalise” British compassion. Those crossing the Channel on small boats, Jenrick explained, “tend to have completely different lifestyles and values to those in the UK” meaning they undermine “cultural cohesiveness”.
I have written before that this suggested Sunak (to whom Jenrick has been fiercely loyal) had decided the best way to silence Braverman was to simply agree with her — or even to outbid her discursively on her own terms. It ensured that the Home Office was not Braverman’s personal fiefdom as the pre-elevation, Granita Pact-esque deal would suggest. Rather, Jenrick’s abiding faith in the government line — coupled with his parliamentary and media conspicuousness — meant he was no less than the de facto home secretary.
A curious dynamic emerged, therefore, which was only ended when the home secretary undertook to follow her most obvious political incentive and fight back. After a period of relative quietude over summer, Braverman soon amped up her posturing, assuming positions that Sunak and other cabinet ministers like Jenrick could not themselves reasonably adopt. She was rewarded with the sack.
Thus, with Braverman now departed, a rather different dynamic has emerged between Jenrick and new home secretary James Cleverly — but contrary to Sunak’s likely expectations, it is tending to further disunity.
In fact, it seems the immigration minister has filled the Braverman-shaped hole in the Home Office by putting himself at the head of demands in the Conservative Party for lower migration.
Perhaps Jenrick thinks he should have been rewarded for his dogged loyalty as de facto home secretary with a de jure promotion. He was, of course, one-third of the triumvirate of junior ministers, along with Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden, who backed Boris Johnson in 2019 to give him the momentum to become prime minister. Of these three close allies, Jenrick has undoubtedly fared worst in the current government. His record warrants a higher-profile position, he may well conclude.
But whatever his thinking, the dynamic that has developed between himself and James Cleverly, now mirrors the old dynamic between Suella Braverman and himself. But Jenrick’s position — once considered a moderating force — has entirely reversed. His aggressive agreement with Braverman while he served as her deputy is having a long afterlife, it seems.
The nature of Cleverly and Jenrick’s dynamic also runs counter to what might be expected from the immigration minister (a former remainer once nicknamed “Robert Generic”) and the home secretary (a barrel-chested Brexiteer and former Boris Johnson loyalist).
But, as a consequence, Jenrick has seen the weight of the Conservative Party right wing swing behind him. During the urgent question yesterday, Suella Braverman’s prime patron and closest ally Sir John Hayes asked:
Does the minister recognise that many myths about immigration are perpetuated by the unholy alliance of greedy globalist corporate businesses and guilt-ridden bourgeois liberals? … In doing so, will he recognise that we are relying on him to sort this out, because we know that he shares our concern that it is time for British workers for British jobs?
The immigration minister, sidelining his responsibility to stress departmental unity, responded: “My right hon. Friend and I are at one on this issue”.
Later, Sir Edward Leigh argued that wages in the care home sector must increase to stop mass arrivals from abroad. “We know [the minister’s] on the right side, he’s just got to persuade the PM now”, he added.
Jenrick replied: “He’s absolutely right and I agree with everything he said”
It underlines that if Sunak thought he could end the disunity at the Home Office by sacking Braverman, he was sorely mistaken. Jettisoning the former troublemaker home secretary has inspired in Jenrick a new activist tilt. His immigration dilemma, correspondingly, is no less fraught.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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