Former minister Andrew Mitchell has defended Rishi Sunak, claiming his comments on taking money from deprived urban areas and redirecting it towards more prosperous towns such as Tunbridge Wells were “misunderstood”.
The former chancellor sparked outrage after he made the admission while speaking to Conservative party members in the affluent Kent town on Friday.
“I managed to start changing the funding formulas to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserved,” Sunak said in comments captured on video.
“We inherited a bunch of formulas from Labour that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone. I started the work of undoing that.”
Tunbridge Wells has a Tory majority of 14,645 and has been held by the Conservatives since 1974 when the constituency was formed.
Mitchell, who is a supporter of Sunak’s Tory leadership bid, claimed it was a misunderstanding and that Sunak was in fact talking about the red wall.
“I think it’s been misunderstood because, first of all, Rishi, when in government, produced significant sums as chancellor of the exchequer to help with the levelling up agenda and to address funding needs specifically in red wall seats in our poorest areas, but also in areas like mine, which are not part of the red wall and are not one of the poorest areas in the country,” the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield told Times Radio on Saturday. “Indeed, Sutton Coldfield is one of the most affluent.”
While Mitchell admitted that needs are “far greater elsewhere”, he said taxpayer support will be needed to rejuvenate high streets and town centres.
“Now, I’m not saying for a moment that the needs aren’t far greater elsewhere, but we will not be able to rejuvenate our high street infrastructure, the town centre infrastructure, which has suffered so grievously from economic change over the last 10 years,” he said.
“We won’t be able to do that without some, admittedly smaller, but some government taxpayer support and what Rishi was saying, I think, was that he had adapted the rules to ensure that both the red wall and the poorer seats can receive the help they need, but also where it’s needed on a wider front, which of course affects the red wall seats, such funding can be made available.”
But some of his colleagues were not so sympathetic to Sunak as he tries to make up ground against his leadership rival, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss.
Zac Goldsmith, the Foreign Office minister, said his comments were “one of the weirdest – and dumbest – things I’ve ever heard from a politician”, while Jake Berry, the chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, said that in public Sunak “claims he wants to level up the north, but here he boasts about trying to funnel vital investment away from deprived areas”.
The Truss supporter added: “He says one thing and does another – from putting up taxes to trying to block funding for our armed forces and now levelling up.”
Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow levelling up secretary, said his admission was “scandalous”.
“This is public money. It should be distributed fairly and spent where it’s most needed – not used as a bribe to Tory members,” added Nandy, who has written to the communities secretary Greg Clark, the MP for Tunbridge Wells, urging him to investigate.
But on Friday night, at the Tory leadership hustings in Eastbourne, Sunak doubled down on his Tunbridge Wells comments.
“I want to level up everywhere. And as you may have seen from a video clip that’s online, I don’t believe that’s just about our very large urban cities, I believe it’s about investing in levelling up in small towns, in rural communities, in coastal communities like those here in the south-east,” he said to applause.