How Robert Jenrick became the face of government ‘vice signalling’

Robert Jenrick entered parliament in 2014 after efficiently seeing off a problem from UKIP in a by-election. In such contests, events have a tendency to choose essentially the most generic, least troublesome candidates after rounds of fastidious vetting. Jenrick, the mild-mannered lawyer, was pointedly prototypical. 

In parliament, Jenrick picked up the moniker “Robert Generic” as he climbed the greasy ballot briskly if tediously. Someplace alongside the best way Mr Generic met Rishi Sunak, elected a 12 months after him on the 2015 election, and the 2 shaped a detailed political bond. Finally, in 2019, Sunak and Jenrick shaped two-thirds of the triumvirate that penned an article for the Times backing Boris Johnson for the Conservative management. It was interpreted as a watershed: the occasion up-and-comers have been swinging in behind Bojo. The election was primarily over. Jenrick grew to become housing secretary below Johnson, performing his cupboard duties with a quintessential lack of color. 

However nobody may mindfully name Jenrick gray at present; his “Robert Generic” sobriquet, on which he had based a popularity for quiet competence, is consigned to historical past. Instead, his critics allege, has emerged the persona of a pantomime villain. 

It comes following information that Jenrick, as immigration minister, ordered workers at an asylum seeker reception centre for youngsters to black out Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh murals. And that — upon listening to workers refused to take down the murals — exterior contractors have been marched in on Jenrick’s orders.


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The implication was that the murals have been thought of too welcoming. Former UKIP chief Nigel Farage was among the many transfer’s many critics: “This measure is a bit imply”, he informed the i newspaper.

Nonetheless, it’s price questioning what Jenrick was considering in calling an finish to the murals. Initially, it’s inconceivable to assert — and ministers conspicuously don’t — that plain partitions would possibly act as a deterrent to these intent on crossing on small boats. A Dwelling Workplace minister, talking within the Lords on Monday, as a substitute insisted that detention services should “have the requisite ornament befitting their goal”. Detention centres have to appear like detention centres, was borders minister Lord Murray’s line. 

However there may be undoubtedly one thing far deeper at play right here than Lord Murray’s mere insistence on utilitarian ornament. For such ostentatious shows of ministerial authority as Jenrick’s on Mickey Mouse and co. have an essential signalling high quality. 

Robert Jenrick: minister for ‘vice signalling’

Since getting into No 10 in October, Rishi Sunak has ensured that his authorities has adopted an unapologetically hardline perspective on “small boats” coverage. Certainly, it’s no secret the PM desires to personal this divisive difficulty — rubbishing the Labour occasion as weak within the course of. 

And crucially, the mural row shouldn’t be the primary time Jenrick has confronted a backlash because the face of the federal government’s hardline migration stance. In April, he controversially claimed that “extreme, uncontrolled migration threatens to cannibalise the compassion of the British public”. Talking at a Coverage Change occasion, he mentioned: “these crossing are inclined to have fully totally different life and values to these within the UK — and have a tendency to settle in already hyper-diverse areas, undermining the cultural cohesiveness that binds various teams collectively and makes our multi-ethnic democracy profitable”.

On this method, Jenrick’s evolution from “Robert Generic” to verbal flame-thrower speaks each to the ideological necessities of his immigration transient and the political incentives Rishi Sunak’s authorities is following on the problem of “small boats”. It’s, sarcastically, one thing of a efficiency artwork — whereby ministers sign their purported seriousness on a difficulty with uncompromising, generally merciless shows of political intent. The phenomenon has been termed “vice signalling”.

‘Robert Generic’s’ speedy demise

However Jenrick’s function in that is nonetheless curious. For on the time of his appointment, it was broadly judged that Jenrick could be a moderating politician — a quietly competent counterweight to his boss and the house secretary, Suella Braverman. 

Seeking to stake his premiership on fixing the small boasts disaster, the PM selected in October to not threat surrendering the Dwelling Workplace in its entirety to Braverman, a possible rival. As a substitute, Jenrick, a key ally, would take the submit of immigration minister and entrance the ministry’s trickiest parliamentary and media assignments.

It will be a good cop-bad cop routine: Jenrick would do the heavy lifting in parliament and on coverage, whereas Braverman would do the political signalling and efficiency — each to the Conservative right-wing and to focus on voters. In flip, Jenrick’s very presence would undermine the ideological implications of Sunak and Braverman’s uneasy entente, shaped by way of pact within the October management contest. (Having backed Sunak for prime minister, Braverman might need seemed ahead to a semi-autonomous institutional energy base in authorities, through which she may wilfully distort the distribution of energy within the British government. Jenrick was positioned in a main place to make sure she couldn’t). 

Early on in Sunak’s premiership, Jenrick and Braverman’s good cop-bad cop dialectic gave the impression to be working as predicted. In November 2022, after the house secretary got here below fireplace for saying the UK is being “invaded” by small boast crossing, ministerial mollifier Jenrick was deployed to right her. “In jobs like mine you must select phrases rigorously, and I’d by no means demonise folks in quest of a greater life”, he affirmed. He certified for his boss: “I feel invasion is a method of describing the sheer scale of the problem, that’s what Suella Braverman was attempting to precise”. 

Outbidding Braverman

It’s due to this fact price contemplating how Jenrick’s up to date strategy, in adopting evermore authoritative stances on small boats, impacts the political positioning of his bold boss. For it might now be the case that Sunak has determined one of the best ways to neutralise the house secretary’s freelancing is to make use of Jenrick — once more, a key ally — to outbid her on the politics of migration. 

In all, it’s clear the immigration minister not shies away from the discursive parts of his transient. In flip, it means Braverman can not be seen as the federal government’s thought chief on migration. Her means to steal headlines with hardline rhetoric on “invasion”, for instance, is misplaced — and, in time, a possible resignation will likely be rendered far much less politically potent.

Jenrick’s new Maverick streak, mandated by his ally, Rishi Sunak, due to this fact sums up the federal government’s new strategy on “small boats”. The reliance on performative politics, on “vice signalling” and on hardline rhetoric operates to disguise the truth that the PM presently has little recourse to behave decisively on the problem. 

So with the Rwanda deportation plan clogged up within the courts and the unlawful migration invoice set for “ping pong” between the Lords and the commons, the political incentives counsel Jenrick’s tilt to the precise on migration coverage will proceed for a while.