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Will Robert Jenrick’s Tory leadership pitch work?

The former immigration minister has transformed himself from a One Nation centrist into a right-wing firebrand.

By Rachel Cunliffe

With all the tension in the run-up to the local elections and the anti-climax that followed, you’d be forgiven for thinking the shadow Tory leadership contest was on pause. All sorts of names were floated as potential replacements for Rishi Sunak in the weeks leading up to 2 May – Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat – but speculation fizzled out once it became apparent that, though the results had been dire for the Conservatives, they would not be switching leaders again this side of an election.

The Tories may have resigned themselves to fighting the upcoming election with Sunak at the helm, but the fight to succeed him after the fact continues. And the candidate in the spotlight right now is Robert Jenrick.

Last week, as the full impact of the local election results was sinking in, the former immigration minister launched a scathing attack on the government. In a report co-authored with fellow Tory MP Neil O’Brien for the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, Jenrick made a strident case for “Taking Back Control” of Britain’s borders.

“It would be unforgivable if the government did not use the time before the general election to undo the disastrous post-Brexit liberalisations that betrayed the express wishes of the British public for lower immigration,” he said of the hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants entering the United Kingdom each year.

This week, Jenrick has been reaffirming that message. In a webinar on Monday night with Mark Littlewood, of the Popular Conservatives group (founded by Liz Truss in a bid to make conservatism popular again), Jenrick did not hold back: “We betrayed the promise of Brexit,” he told the virtual attendees, while reiterating his case for legal migration to be capped in the tens of thousands. Later, he argued for the UK to free itself from “activist judges” and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). “I think illegal immigration is a national security emergency,” he warned.

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Jenrick, 42, has been on something of a journey during his decade in front-line politics. Not all that long ago he was a relatively unknown junior minister; he backed Remain in 2016; and in 2019 he wrote a joint op-ed with Sunak and the future Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, praising One Nation conservatism. The same year Boris Johnson promoted him to cabinet level as the first millennial housing secretary – leading one Conservative Home columnist to remark that he “rose without trace”.

His time in cabinet, marred by a couple of scandals (one involving a potential breach of Covid lockdown rules, another regarding a property development deal in which his behaviour was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”), didn’t last. Jenrick helped run Sunak’s leadership campaign in summer 2022; Liz Truss grudgingly made him health minister in her short-lived government. When Sunak took over from Truss in October, one might have imagined a plum job for Jenrick. Instead, he was made immigration minister in a Home Office run by Suella Braverman. A year later, when Braverman’s explosive comments became too much for Sunak and he sacked her, Jenrick might have assumed he was in line for the top job. But James Cleverly was shuffled to the Home Office and David Cameron drafted into the Foreign Office.

No one is suggesting this disappointment is why Jenrick chose to resign less than a month later, citing “strong disagreements” with the government over its plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda. Nor is this to argue that his crusade against the Prime Minister he once fought so hard for might in any way be personal. But it has been interesting to watch his transformation from staunch Sunak ally and moderate centrist (“Robert Generic”, as some Tory MPs still call him) to a right-wing firebrand. In January, when the Rwanda bill was facing its third reading in the Commons, Jenrick spearheaded a number of amendments to try to toughen it up. “Strengthening the Rwanda Bill is the only path to victory,” he wrote in an op-ed at the time. The amendments failed, but 60 Tories from the right-wing factions of the party voted with Jenrick against the government.

Since then, Jenrick has been busy. He has continued to agitate over illegal immigration and the Rwanda legislation. But the 30,000 people that made an unauthorised Channel crossing in 2023 represents a tiny fraction of the people coming to Britain. And so he has pivoted to taking on large-scale legal migration. The recommendations made in his co-authored Centre for Policy Studies report include abolishing the graduate visa, increasing the salary thresholds for those hoping to come to Britain to work, and instituting caps on the various visa routes. “These policies could be implemented immediately and would consign low-skilled mass migration to the past,” he said in support of the report.

If that sounds suspiciously like a leadership pitch to you, it’s an open secret in Westminster that Jenrick wants the top job. And since quitting as immigration minister in December his chances are starting to look reasonable. “You should keep an eye on Jenrick,” a Tory MP told me just before the local elections. “His resignation means he looks like he’s got integrity.” Braverman, who is also jostling to be the candidate of the right, was sacked as home secretary; Jenrick stood down on his own terms out of principle. Some MPs reckon he’s a less divisive figure than Braverman, with more credibility. And while Badenoch remains the favourite, hoping to play the role of “sensible” right-winger, the longer she stays in government the more she risks being tarnished by Sunak.

But questions remain about his ideological purity. Is Jenrick just going through the motions to woo the Tory right? And how does he explain his Damascene conversion over the past five years? That was a concern of some of the PopCon webinar attendees, who asked if he was a Brexiteer (he wasn’t in 2016) and criticised the records of the various PMs under whom he has served. But according to one source close to the former minister, his recent fixation with immigration isn’t opportunism. “The Home Office radicalised him,” they told me. “It would radicalise anyone. He’s seen up close how dysfunctional our immigration system is.”

If this is true for him, it’s equally convenient for anyone who goes for the Tory leadership. Those who attended the PopCon webinar were in no doubt about what they wanted. As Littlewood and Jenrick spoke, attendees had the chance to signal their reactions with emojis. A flurry of hearts, thumbs-up and clapping hands bubbled up across the screen whenever Jenrick talked about the need to control immigration numbers, leave the ECHR, get the economically inactive back to work, and go to war on the committees and quangos, which PopCons like Truss argue hamstring even the most dedicated Conservative governments. Littlewood ran a poll during the webinar on leaving the ECHR: 96 per cent of respondents were in favour. There was similar opposition to net zero (“largely pointless”), foreign aid spending and the “infrastructure” of “woke politics”.

This is, of course, a self-selecting group whose politics have little bearing on Conservative voters as a whole, let alone the wider electorate. The local elections – where support for the Lib Dems and Greens surged in addition to Labour’s suite of victories – does not suggest a public crying out for more Conservative conservatism.

But it is not hard to see the niche that Jenrick is attempting to fill. And with Braverman’s star on the wane, and Badenoch constrained by the limits of her office, it may prove a clever tactic. Still, not everyone is convinced about Jenrick’s chances of being the next Conservative leader. When asked about his prospects an MP from the centre of the party simply responded “LOL”.

[See also: The Great Stink: Britain’s pollution crisis]

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