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 more prosperous towns 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 Labour that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone.
“I started the work of undoing that.”
Labour MPs have voiced their anger over the comments, with shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy calling them “scandalous”.
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.
Meanwhile, Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, said: “No surprise here. The Tories have been doing it every time they’ve been in power. ‘Levelling up’ is merely another of their vacuous slogans.”
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.”
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.”
However, 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 Labour 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.”
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.
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.