Rishi Sunak has been accused of “funnelling taxpayers’ money to rich Tory shires” after he told party members he had been working to divert funding from “deprived urban areas”.
A video obtained by the New Statesman magazine shows the former chancellor telling grassroots Conservatives that he had started changing public funding formulas to ensure other parts of the country receive “the funding they deserve”.
In remarks made in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, last week he said: “I managed to start changing the funding formulas, to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserve because we inherited a bunch of formulas from Labor that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone.
“I started the work of undoing that.”
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Labor MPs have voiced their anger over the comments, with shadow leveling up secretary Lisa Nandy calling them “scandalous”.
She has written to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Greg Clark, asking him to investigate the changes Mr Sunak is referring to and what justification was given for them.
She said: “Rishi Sunak is openly boasting that he fixed the rules to funnel taxpayers’ money to rich Tory shires.
“This is our money. It should be spent fairly and where it’s most needed – not used as a bribe to Tory members. Talk about showing your true colours.”
Mr Sunak’s campaign did not dispute the video and instead defended its content.
Tory MP Jake Berry, who is chairman of the Northern Research Group of MPs, also condemned the remarks as he attacked Mr Sunak’s leadership campaign.
He tweeted: “In public @RishiSunak claims he wants to level up the North, but here, he boasts about trying to funnel vital investment away from deprived areas?
“He says one thing and does another – from putting up taxes to trying to block funding for our armed forces and now levelling up.”
And Foreign Office minister Lord Zac Goldsmith said: “This is one of the weirdest – and dumbest – things I’ve ever heard from a politician.”
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A source for Mr Sunak’s campaign said: “Levelling up isn’t just about city centres, it’s also about towns and rural areas all over the country that need help too. That’s what he changed in the green book and he will follow though as prime minister.
“Travelling around the country, he’s seen non-metropolitan areas that need better bus services, faster broadband or high quality schools. That’s what he’ll deliver as prime minister.”
Allies of Mr Sunak have rallied around the Tory leadership contender.
Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen argued Boris Johnson led the party to electoral victory on a pledge to invest in areas “that have been ignored at the expense of urban cities”.
And Richard Holden, the Tory MP for North West Durham, attacked Labor for “dragging investment out of small cities, towns, suburbs, villages” while “splurging” in metropolitan centres.
Defending Mr Sunak he told Sky News: “Rishi Sunak tore up (Treasury orthodoxy) so that places right across from Cornwall to the Cotswolds to County Durham to Cambridgeshire were all basically benefiting from a total change in the rules.”
Sky News analysis last year found the majority of Levelling Up funding was going to the most deprived parts of the UK. But many areas in need missed out in the first round.
Mr Holden added that over the years a lot of deprived areas had “changed fundamentally”.
“You’ve seen huge transformation in east London, yet they’re still getting much more money per head than, say, rural places like North West Durham, which really needs that support or parts of the southwest of England,” he continued.
“What I want to see is leveling up across the whole country, not just concentrated in urban areas.
“And that’s what Rishi’s vision for the country is, that wherever you are, you need the same opportunity to succeed, not just in those urban areas.”
The remarks come as Mr Sunak tries to make up ground against Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to win the backing of party members who will choose the next prime minister.
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Ms Truss has been consistently ahead in the polls, but last night saw Mr Sunak win over an audience of undecided voters following Sky News’ Battle for No 10 programme.