December 7, 2023 - 5:15pm

Robert Jenrick’s decision to resign over the Government’s Rwanda policy, which he argues does not go “far enough”, is a serious signal of trouble ahead.

Indeed, this departure should be taken more seriously than Suella Braverman’s a few weeks before. The former Home Secretary held the more senior post, to be sure. But Braverman was never an ally of the Prime Minister, and had been pushing the boundaries on all sorts of fronts in the weeks leading up to her dismissal from government.

Jenrick is a different beast. He has not been part of the politics-as-punditry wing of the Tory Right. 

Indeed, he has a reputation for actually trying to get to grips with difficult issues in government: when Boris Johnson tasked him with taking forward planning reform, he actually did it, even though his ultimate reward was getting dismissed from the Cabinet when his boss got cold feet.

When he was first sent to the Home Office last October, it was widely viewed as Sunak installing a loyalist in the department to keep an eye on Braverman (perhaps mindful of the promises he had apparently made to her during the leadership contest).

So that Jenrick has ended up, after a year in post as immigration minister, on the side of the argument calling for much more radical action is significant. If anyone would know whether the UK can control its borders under our present legal framework, he would.

At the Home Office, he will have seen first hand how the easy answers often peddled by critics of the Government’s approach are no answers at all. 

Without an effective legal means to limit the number of people able to claim asylum here, and effective means for deporting those who fail, setting up safe and legal routes risks the number of applications running out of control.

Talk of clearing the processing backlog is all very well, but the only way any government could be certain to do that would be waiving people through. Each case officials try to reject is subject to repeated legal challenge, and once those are exhausted, it is often extremely difficult to deport the claimant — especially if they have taken the smugglers’ advice and destroyed their passport.

However, it’s also likely that his resignation is not just about the alleged shortcomings in the Safety of Rwanda Bill. Jenrick was Minister for Immigration, not illegal immigration. His resignation letter refers to the much bigger problem of overall numbers; when he wrote that he refuses to be “yet another politician who makes promises to the British public on immigration but does not keep them”, last year’s eye-watering net immigration figures must have been uppermost in his mind.

That highlights the other big problem for Sunak. Yes, voters concerned about immigration are angry about channel crossings, a visible loss of control. But focusing on that cannot paper over the fact that net immigration was 257,000 per annum when the Tories took power in 2010 — and 745,000 in 2022.

As a result, if Sunak wants to fight the next election on immigration then he has to do so in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the fact it has almost tripled under the Conservatives. Hence his relentless focus, despite all the setbacks, on Rwanda.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.