Reinfeldt took Billström to task for several missteps, the most recent of which took place on Monday in an interview the migration minister gave the Dagens Nyhter (DN) newspaper about the issue of asylum seekers and other migrants who stay in Sweden illegally.
“Sometimes we have this image that people in hiding live with a nice Swedish lady in her fifties or sixties who wants to help,” Billström told DN.
“But that’s not how it is. Most of them live with their countrymen who aren’t at all blonde and blue-eyed.”
Billström apologized for the formulation later on Monday after a storm of criticism erupted from across the political spectrum.
On Tuesday, Reinfeldt made his first public statement on the controversy, describing Billström’s comment as “inappropriate”.
“He’s made a few mistakes recently and it’s been made more difficult by the fact that they’ve taken place on several occasions,” Reinfeldt told the TT news agency.
“Therefore, I’ve made it clear for Tobias Billström that the way to regain confidence is by holding himself to the humanitarian line we have in our policies and that he must work hard to regain that confidence.”
Reinfeldt also answered critics who accused the Moderate Party of shifting its position on immigration policy to one closer to that of the populist, anti-immigration stance of the Sweden Democrats.
“There’s been no shift. We stand for a humane, orderly, and legally-sound asylum and immigration policy,” said Reinfeldt, jettisoning speculation that he and Billström are engaging in a “bad cop, good cop” approach to immigration policy.
“It’s not about that. We have no intention of making any changes in our asylum and migration policy.”
Reinfeldt’s public criticism of his embattled migration minister is almost unprecedented in Swedish politics, according to one expert.
“I can’t recall another example in Swedish political history when a prime minister directed such stinging criticism again someone in his cabinet,” Stockholm University political science professor Tommy Möller told TT.
“What’s normal with these sort of tensions, what’s common practice, is to resign.”
Möller added that Reinfeldt’s decision to reprimand Billström publicly indicated that the move was an attempt to “weaken Billström’s political authority”.