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How mild-mannered ‘Robert Generic’ turned into a ruthless right-wing wannabe Tory leader

The former immigration minister and conservative-turned-rebel may seem like a moderate, but he is slowly becoming a flag-bearer for the right

Zoe Grunewald
Tuesday 23 January 2024 18:11 GMT
The former immigration minister has called on the government to do ‘whatever it takes’ to bring down illegal migration

So cautious and moderate was former immigration minister Robert Jenrick when he entered the Commons that he was nicknamed “Robert Generic”.

Jenrick ticked every box of the Conservative cliche. A history graduate from Cambridge and a qualified solicitor, he joined parliament as the MP for Newark in 2014. He voted to remain in the EU, and backed Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times. He has served as a minister, in multiple departments, under every prime minister since 2017. It is no surprise that he has long been considered a moderate within the party.

Robert Jenrick has been friends with Rishi Sunak for many years (PA Archive)

As a long-standing friend of Rishi Sunak, Jenrick seemed like the obvious choice to keep a watchful eye over the unpredictable home secretary Suella Braverman.

Sunak may have hoped that the teddy-bear-like Jenrick would keep the wild bear Braverman under control – instead, after 13 months, he joined her. Now he is among the favourites to succeed Sunak if the Tories lose the coming general election – or if the prime minister is ousted before then, however unlikely that seems.

It is with great stealth that Jenrick has crept up the list of possible leadership contenders. Despite serving in a number of high-profile departments, including the Treasury, health, the Home Office and housing, the former minister’s name never entered conversations about leadership until recently. But those who have worked with him are complimentary, describing him as “deeply cerebral” and a skilled communicator, and say his political vision extends far beyond immigration.

Housing is a high priority for Jenrick. Having brought forward proposed planning reforms as housing minister, and issued a plea to his successor, Michael Gove, not to water down housebuilding commitments, he breaks with some within the party who have opposed housing targets. Jenrick has warned that the party will lose young voters if it doesn’t make good on its housing pledges. With only 10 per cent of those under 50 saying they will vote Tory at the next election, Conservative strategists say a pro-housebuilding stance could be the only way to avoid a wipeout.

But despite his seemingly centrist credentials, allies insist Jenrick has always been of the right. One observer says it is the Conservative Party that has moved further left, citing David Cameron’s 2010 manifesto commitment to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands a year” – which is considerably less than the current net migration figures, which stand at 672,000 for 2023.

Though often seen as the more moderate force in the Home Office, Jenrick seized headlines by ordering murals of Mickey Mouse and Baloo from The Jungle Book to be removed from the walls of an immigration detention centre because they were too welcoming. Braverman and Jenrick have a long-standing friendship, having studied together at Cambridge University and worked closely together in the Home Office, and they have remained aligned on amendments to Sunak’s Rwanda legislation.

Robert Jenrick faced criticism after he ordered officials to paint over murals at an asylum seeker reception centre (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons)

Whispers in Westminster are that Jenrick’s recent weight loss and new haircut are a clear indication of his ambition. He has not said he will run for the leadership – but he has not ruled it out, either. Those close to him say they have no knowledge of his future plans, but are keen to sing his praises.

There is no denying that he suddenly looks – and sounds – hungry, spearheading rebel amendments against Sunak’s Rwanda bill and holding the pen on Daily Telegraph op-eds that are openly critical of the government’s position. “In almost everyone’s eyes, he’s grown in stature,” said a senior Conservative MP and close friend of Jenrick, John Hayes.

But his record is not entirely flawless. Back in 2020, he was involved in a cronyism scandal when he overruled a planning decision to the benefit of newspaper magnate Richard Desmond, who then donated £12,000 to the party.

As housing minister, he was accused by some of his colleagues of “concreting over” their constituencies in his push to build more rural homes.

Jenrick is also married to Michal Berkner, a wealthy lawyer. If the Conservatives wanted to choose a leader who represents a break from the last few decades, picking another Oxbridge alumnus with millions in the bank would not be wise.

Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK, has said his party will stand a candidate in every Conservative battleground (PA)

Few commentators doubt that the Tories are heading for defeat at the coming election. They say the party will inevitably lurch to the right, especially as Nigel Farage embarks on a media resurgence and Reform UK nibbles away at Conservative seats. A recent YouGov poll predicts that Reform could receive as much as 12 per cent of the vote share – putting a considerable dint in the Conservative support base.

But there are those who worry that Farage’s brand of brash populism could frighten away voters. Some in the party still talk highly of Braverman’s prospects, but admit that her communication style may not be to everyone’s taste. Jenrick’s delivery feels more palatable. “He exudes reasonableness,” one Tory MP mused.

How much more safe and sensible to pick someone like Jenrick, who holds similar views but seems a lot less scary. After all, who would be frightened by a teddy bear in a suit?

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