A.Robert Jenrick “rose without a trace” before becoming a minister at the age of 37, in the words of a Conservative Party columnist. He was seen as an ally of Rishi Sunak who could keep a close eye on former Home Secretary Suella Braverman at the Home Office.
But now he is making waves as the Tory right’s standard-bearer on the need to reduce net migration to the UK – going further than Number 10 by suggesting ways to reduce it and hinting to his frustration with the inaction at the summit. Numbers.
The Newark MP won his seat in a 2014 by-election after his predecessor, Patrick Mercer, resigned following a lobbying scandal. And for a long time, Jenrick was a forgettable MP, devoid of distinct policies or causes.
This began to change during his time as Communities Secretary, when Jenrick was embroiled in two controversies. The first was his decision in 2020 to reverse a planning decision in a way that benefited conservative donor and former media mogul Richard Desmond. He pushed through the decision to approve a £1 billion apartment development a day before a community levy came into force, providing £45 million for Tower Hamlets Council to spend on local infrastructure. The board challenged the decision in court and Jenrick backed down, acknowledging potential bias.
It later emerged that he had sat next to Desmond at a Conservative party fundraising event in November, where the former owner of the Express showed him a PR video for the development of 44 floors. (Jenrick said he declined to discuss the building permit application at the event.) Two weeks after the planning decision, Desmond gave £12,000 to the Conservatives. Amid growing political pressure, Jenrick’s department released correspondence relating to the case that showed Desmond had texted him about it and suggested Jenrick had urged officials to complete the process before entry in force of the infrastructure tax.
The second concerned Jenrick’s movements during confinement. The MP, a former lawyer, owns two properties in London as well as Eye Manor, a Grade I listed house in Herefordshire, and local people complain that they do not see him in his Newark constituency as much as they would like.
At the height of the coronavirus lockdown, it emerged that Jenrick had visited another property, his parents’ home in Shropshire. While admitting he did this, he said it was to drop off food and medicine and that he did not enter their house. It also emerged that Jenrick had traveled between London and Eye Manor, rather than home in Newark. He said Eye Manor was his family home and his family was spending lockdown there.
Still, Jenrick would hardly be considered a household name. He left the cabinet in 2021 following the Desmond controversy and No 10’s decision to rewrite some of his planning reforms, and he spent time on the backbenches.
It is only since his return as Immigration Minister in October 2022 that Jenrick has started to make waves and make friends among right-wing conservatives.
He first gained attention in this position with his office’s decision to order murals of Mickey Mouse and Baloo from The Jungle Book removed from an immigration detention center over concerns that they would are too welcoming.
Jenrick, a regular on the airwaves, appears to be often deployed by conservative officials to avoid making the news. But his assertion in the House of Commons last week that he would have liked to have taken action to reduce immigration before last Christmas raised eyebrows.
Usually studious about his message, he appeared to insert some distance between his own position and that of Rishi Sunak, giving the impression that he has made more effort than others to reduce immigration figures. His allies suggested he presented Number 10 with a five-point plan on how to bring the numbers down, while insisting he was not deviating from the government’s narrative.
A minister close to Jenrick suggested the immigration minister was preparing for the future.
“Rob is distancing himself from Rishi, it’s as simple as that. He’s young and he’s in it for the long haul, and he can see where things are going,” they said. “He may have shown his colors on Rishi’s mast initially, but if there is to be a new captain of the ship after the elections, he doesn’t want to be too closely associated with the one who walked the plank. “
Jenrick also said there was a “strong case” for a cap on migration proposed by Braverman, who was sacked by Sunak for deviating from government policy. His political friends, including John Hayes, have publicly stated that they believe Jenrick shares their concerns about high net migration. And his political course appears to have deviated from its previously stable course, away from Sunak and towards Braverman’s right.