Robert Jenrick said to have ‘eye on the future’ as he exits cabinet

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Robert Jenrick was appointed immigration minister just over 12 months ago by his close political ally Rishi Sunak. At the time, the assumption was that he had been put there as a Downing Street stooge to keep a close eye on his boss, Suella Braverman.

The then home secretary’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration, including describing asylum seekers entering the UK as “an invasion”, was attracting criticism. She was, the prime minister’s supporters believed, on manoeuvres for the top job in the event of the Tories losing the next election.

Now, it seems, Jenrick has gone native. He quit just hours after Sunak published his new Rwanda legislation, saying that it was not tough enough and that he could not stay in post when he had “such strong disagreements” with the direction of government policy.

There have been signs. In July, he ordered the removal of murals of cartoon characters – including Mickey Mouse – painted on the walls of an asylum seeker reception centre to cheer up children because he thought they were too welcoming and sent out the wrong message.

More recently, he has argued for 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 Sunak’s inaction over record high numbers. His allies have suggested he presented a five-point plan to No 10 on how to reduce them.

Jenrick “rose without a trace” before becoming a cabinet minister at the age of 37, in the words of one Conservative Home columnist. He won his Newark seat in a 2014 byelection after his predecessor, Patrick Mercer, resigned in a lobbying scandal. For years, he was an unmemorable MP, lacking any distinctive policies or causes.

Yet as communities secretary, he caught the headlines in 2020 after overruling 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 Tory party fundraising event in November 2019, although he said he refused to discuss the application. 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 showing that Desmond had texted him about the issue, and which suggested that Jenrick had urged officials to complete the process before the levy came into force. He was sacked by Boris Johnson in the next reshuffle.

Jenrick, a wealthy former solicitor who owns two London properties and a Grade I-listed manor house in Herefordshire, also ran into trouble at the peak of the coronavirus lockdown after it emerged that he had visited another property, his parents’ home in Shropshire.

Related: Robert Jenrick quits frontbench over Rwanda bill, piling pressure on Sunak

While he conceded that he had done this, he said it had been to drop off food and medicines and that he had not entered their house.

Jenrick, 41, will now return to the backbenches, where he will sit alongside Braverman, presumably trying to make waves as another standard-bearer for the right on the claimed need to reduce net migration, even if it means ripping up international agreements.

Yet friends say he also has one eye on 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,” one senior minister told the Guardian last week.

“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.”

In his resignation letter to the prime minister, Jenrick wrote that the pair “have been friends for a long time”. When even such friendship cannot command loyalty, things are looking grim for Sunak.