Skip to main content

Jenrick gives Sunak a nightmare before Christmas

By Harry Brown
07 December 2023
Public Affairs

As Christmas gets closer, the Conservatives launched into a big family argument and handed Labour an early present with Robert Jenrick’s resignation as Immigration Minister last night. 

Jenrick resigned in protest at yesterday’s flagship Immigration Bill, having lost an internal battle for even tougher legislation to set aside human rights protections to prevent legal challenges to the government’s Rwanda policy.

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill has been brought forward in response to the Supreme Court ruling last month that the Rwanda policy was unlawful. Coupled with the news shortly after that ruling that net legal migration had also reached a record high, the Prime Minister has been facing pressure from his MPs to find a solution to bring down both legal and illegal migration numbers.

On Monday, Home Secretary James Cleverly unveiled new measures to Parliament to tighten rules on legal migration. Yesterday, he announced that Rwanda would be declared a “safe country” to send cross-Channel asylum seekers to and that several sections of the Human Rights Act would be disapplied to ensure widespread legal challenges did not hinder the policy.

In his resignation letter, however, Jenrick said he did not believe the Bill went far enough to “end the merry-go-round of legal challenges.” Many on the right of the party have already called for the government to pull the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights, and the likes of former Home Secretary Suella Braverman - who laid down her own challenge to the Prime Minister in a statement in Parliament yesterday - will be encouraged that Jenrick has so publicly criticised him for not going far enough.

However, it is not just the Prime Minister’s Rwanda plans that are facing criticism. Sunak’s wider leadership and struggle to unite a party already onto its third prime minister since 2019 is in jeopardy of unravelling into a factional war again. Jenrick was once a close ally of the Prime Minister’s, so much so that he published a joint article alongside Sunak and now Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden in 2019 backing Boris Johnson for the Conservative Party leadership. He is now the darling of the right, having turned his back on his old friend.

The government whips will be extremely worried ahead of next week when MPs will vote on the legislation. Jenrick was seen as a peacemaker between the right and the centre of the Conservative Party, but – with Labour certain to vote against the Bill - all eyes will be on whether the government actually has the numbers to get the Bill through.

The fact the PM explicitly pledged to stop the boats rather than just reduce or limit them explains why he is so keen to pass the legislation. He has made himself personally accountable for the policy.

After failing to move the dial and mood through numerous interventions in recent weeks, including Party Conference, a ministerial reshuffle, the King’s Speech and the Autumn Statement, Sunak now faces the threat of an increasingly rebellious party getting more and more nervous at the prospect of election defeat.

The biggest winners of the latest drama are Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. Already riding high in the polls, Jenrick’s resignation has provided Keir with an early Christmas present, despite the Prime Minister’s attempt to turn the issue back onto Labour.

In a week when an apologetic Boris Johnson has appeared before the Covid inquiry, voters have been reminded of scars that this parliamentary term has already left within the Conservative Party and paves the way for further division as we head into an anticipated election year.

Just over a year ago, Sunak told his party to “unite or die”, but this December, it is the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future that will all be looming over him as he prepares for a key battle to salvage his flagship policy.