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Robert Jenrick: the rightwinger getting in position for a post-Sunak future

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Robert Jenrick “rose without a trace” before becoming a cabinet minister at the age of 37, in the words of one Conservative Home columnist. He was seen as a Rishi Sunak ally who could keep a close eye on the former home secretary Suella Braverman in the Home Office.

But now he is making waves as a standard bearer for the right of the Conservatives on the need to reduce net migration to the UK – going further than No 10 in suggesting ways it could be brought down and hinting at his frustration at inaction over the high numbers.

The MP for Newark won his seat in a 2014 byelection after his predecessor, Patrick Mercer, resigned in a lobbying scandal. And for a long time Jenrick was an unmemorable MP, lacking any distinctive policies or causes.

This started to change during his time as communities secretary, when Jenrick was embroiled in two controversies. The first was his move in 2020 to overrule a planning decision in a way that benefited the Tory donor and former newspaper magnate Richard Desmond. He pushed through the decision to approve a £1bn development of flats a day before a community levy would have come into force, providing £45m for Tower Hamlets council to spend on local infrastructure. The council challenged the decision in court and Jenrick backed down, conceding a potential for bias.

It later emerged that he had sat next to Desmond at a Conservative party fundraising event in November, where the former Express owner had shown him a PR video for the 44-storey development. (Jenrick said he refused to discuss the planning application at the event.) Two weeks after the planning decision, Desmond gave the Conservatives £12,000. Amid increasing political pressure, Jenrick’s department released correspondence relating to the case that showed Desmond had texted him about the issue, and suggested that Jenrick had urged officials to complete the process before the infrastructure levy came into force.

The second related to Jenrick’s moves in lockdown. The MP, a former solicitor, owns two properties in London as well as Eye Manor, a Grade I-listed home in Herefordshire, and local people have complained they do not see him in his Newark constituency as much as they would like.

At the peak of the coronavirus lockdown it emerged that Jenrick had visited yet another property, his parents’ home in Shropshire. While he conceded he had done this, he said it had been to drop off food and medicines and that he had not entered their house. It also emerged that Jenrick had travelled between London and Eye Manor, rather than his home in Newark. He said Eye Manor was his family home and his family were spending the lockdown there.

Yet still Jenrick would hardly qualify as a household name. He left the cabinet in 2021 in the wake of the Desmond controversy and No 10’s decision to rewrite some of his planning reforms, and he spent some time on the backbenches.

Only since he returned as an immigration minister in October 2022 has Jenrick begun to make waves and win friends among Conservative rightwingers.

He first caught attention in that role with his office’s decision to order murals of Mickey Mouse and Baloo from The Jungle Book to be scrubbed from an immigration detention centre over concerns they were too welcoming.

Jenrick, a regular on the airwaves, appears to be deployed often by Conservative officials to avoid making news. But his claim in the House of Commons last week that he would have liked to have taken steps to reduce immigration before last Christmas raised eyebrows.

Usually studiously on message, he appeared to insert a degree of distance between his own position and that of Rishi Sunak, giving the impression that he has tried harder than others to reduce immigration figures. His allies have suggested he has presented a five-point plan to No 10 on how to reduce the numbers, while insisting he was not departing from the government’s narrative.

One minister who is close to Jenrick suggested that the immigration minister was positioning himself for the future.

“Rob is distancing himself from Rishi, it’s as simple as that. He’s young and is in this for the long term, and can see which way it’s going,” they said. “He may have nailed his colours to Rishi’s mast initially, but if there’s going to be a new captain of the ship after the election, he doesn’t want to be too closely associated with the one that walked the plank.”

Jenrick also said there were “strong arguments” for a cap on migration proposed by Braverman, who was sacked by Sunak for departing from government policy. Her political friends, including John Hayes, have publicly made clear they believe Jenrick shares their concerns about high net migration. And his political path appears to have veered off its previously steady course, away from Sunak and towards the Braverman right.