Robert Jenrick has appeared to distance himself from Rishi Sunak’s immigration policies amid new calls from hardline Conservatives for a clampdown on net migration.
The immigration minister, once seen as close to the prime minister, said on Tuesday that he would have curbed the number of people coming into the UK “before last Christmas” if it could have been done.
His comments appeared to express frustration with the government’s failure to adopt his suggestions to curb overall migration in line with a 2019 manifesto pledge. It has been reported that Jenrick has his own five-point plan that he has presented to No 10.
Suella Braverman, who was sacked as home secretary, has since claimed that the prime minister reneged on a deal to implement policies such as caps on the number of work visas or increasing minimum salary levels while she was in office.
Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Jenrick was asked by the former Conservative minister Caroline Johnson if his plan would be in place before Christmas. He replied: “My plan would have been brought to the house before last Christmas if I could have done, but let’s hope we can bring forward a substantive package of reforms very quickly.
“I am working intensively with the prime minister and the home secretary.”
Official figures published last week showed net migration reached a record 745,000 in 2022, prompting Tory calls for curbs.
The Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis said Jenrick had his “full support”, adding: “I am deeply concerned and confused because at the weekend I get the prime minister saying that migration is too high and needs to come down to more sustainable levels – the full-fat option.
“Yesterday, I get the skimmed option, with the prime minister boasting about our competitive visa regime. The cabinet members who sit round with [Jenrick] – are they full-fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed?”
Jenrick replied: “Of course it’s right that we want the UK to be a country which is open to the very best and the brightest, and that’s why we’ve taken action in creating visa routes, such as the global talent one that the prime minister was promoting at the investment summit this week.
“But we have to reduce net migration and that does mean taking difficult choices and it means making a tangible difference now in the months ahead. The public are sick of talk – they want action.”
It is understood Jenrick’s comments about policy changes that could have been implemented last Christmas were a reflection of his wish to cut net migration. They were not an indication that he had sent policy demands to No 10 in 2022.
The Tory MP John Hayes, an ally of Braverman, singled out Jenrick in government as the person who would support traditional, rightwing backbenchers: “We are relying on him to sort this out because we know he shares our concerns,” he said.
The comments come amid reports of a cabinet split over how to tackle illegal immigration.
Sunak, backed by the foreign secretary, David Cameron, and the new home secretary, James Cleverly, is believed to be reluctant to give in to demands to block human rights laws so asylum seekers can be sent to Rwanda.
No 10 played down any hint of a split between Jenrick and Sunak.
Asked if Jenrick’s comment meant No 10 had blocked a plan he had proposed, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “I don’t know what specifically he is referring to. It’s not unusual for policy to be discussed in the normal way between departments, I’m sure this was no different.”