Rishi Sunak, one of the Conservative leadership hopefuls, has sparked cross-party outrage after he was filmed telling party members in Tunbridge Wells how he had shifted money from “deprived urban areas” to fund projects in the Kent commuter belt.
The former UK chancellor’s comments, made in a sun-drenched garden, appeared to cut across the government’s rhetoric about “levelling up” Britain and spreading wealth beyond the south-east.
Sunak said he had changed Treasury funding formulas to ensure areas such as Tunbridge Wells received “the funding that they deserve”, in a video clip obtained by the New Statesman magazine that quickly went viral.
He said: “We inherited a bunch of formulas from the Labour party that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas . . . that needed to be undone. I started the work of undoing that.”
While Sunak’s message might have gone down well with some of the Tory members who are voting for the next party leader and UK prime minister this summer, it did not travel well beyond the genteel town of Tunbridge Wells.
Jake Berry, chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs and a supporter of Sunak’s rival, foreign secretary Liz Truss, 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 Labour party said it was “scandalous” that Sunak was “openly boasting that he fixed the rules to funnel taxpayers’ money to rich Tory shires”. Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner joked: “And then Rishi Sunak wonders why he hasn’t got any working-class friends.”
Sunak denied last year that he was engaged in “pork barrel politics”, after the Financial Times revealed that 40 out of 45 towns receiving £1bn through new “town deals” had Conservative MPs.
Sunak said on Friday that in Tunbridge Wells he had been “making the point that deprivation exists right across our country and needs to be addressed and that’s why we need to make sure our funding formulas recognise that”.
“People who need help and extra investment aren’t just limited to big urban areas. You find them in towns across the United Kingdom and in rural areas too,” he added.
An ally of Truss said: “I almost feel sorry for him. He’s running a terrible campaign and has come out with a load of policies he clearly doesn’t believe because he’s so desperate.”
With ballot papers landing on Friday, some veteran Tory insiders think the race is already over, with Sunak trailing Truss badly in polls of party members.
Although Sunak has targeted associations across the south-east of England, where the majority of the party’s membership is based, two veteran activists said these areas had also turned against him.
“Rishi has been hoping to win over the home counties, but he doesn’t seem to have realised that Liz’s tax-cutting policies are popular with us,” said one activist.
A former cabinet minister backing Truss said: “As far as I’m concerned, it could not be over more for Rishi. He has committed the cardinal sin of making Tories feel as if they’re screwing poor people.”