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Rishi Sunak insisted he is not out of the Conservative leadership contest after his campaign suffered another blow when a video emerged of him boasting about deliberately moving funding away from deprived urban areas of the UK while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In an interview with GB News published late Friday, Sunak said he had spoken to thousands of party members in recent days and that the contest is closer than suggested by a bombshell YouGov poll on Tuesday, which found his rival Liz Truss had a huge 34-point lead with Tory members.
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“I’m getting a really positive reception where I’m going and I’m enjoying having those conversations with our members,” Sunak said, adding: “I think the race is closer than it might appear in the newspapers.”
But Sunak’s campaign spent Friday on the back foot as he faced widespread criticism over his remarks about reversing government funding for deprived urban areas.
The comments seemed at odds with the Tory election pledge to “level up” less well-off areas of the country including northern England and the Midlands, under the premise that wealthier areas in the southeast have enjoyed the economic spoils for too long. Sunak was speaking to a group of Tory activists in Royal Tunbridge Wells, southeast of London, at the time.
The backlash from across the political spectrum also undermined his campaign’s push to present Sunak as the more electable of the two candidates.
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“I managed to start changing the funding formulas to make sure that areas like this are getting the funding that they deserve,” Sunak said in the video. The New Statesman, which published the footage, said it was filmed on July 29. “We inherited a bunch of formulas from the Labour Party that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone. I started the work of undoing that.”
Tunbridge Wells is a traditional Conservative stronghold and is a relatively affluent seat in southeast England, although it does contain some deprived areas.
“This is one of the weirdest -- and dumbest -- things I’ve ever heard from a politician,” Conservative minister Zac Goldsmith said on Twitter.
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The opposition Labour Party said Sunak’s remarks were evidence of the former chancellor helping better-off Conservative areas at the expense of poorer parts of the country. “This is public money,” Labour’s shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy said. “It should be distributed fairly and spent where it’s most needed -- not used as a bribe to Tory members,”
Truss is also seeking to capitalize on the gaffe with a commitment to review the government’s levelling up formula, promising to “fix underinvestment in regional infrastructure.”
Seeking to defend Sunak, Tory MP Richard Holden accused past Labour governments of moving money from small cities, towns and rural areas into metropolitan centers. He represents the type of seat in northern England which switched to the Tories from Labour in 2019, and which the Conservatives are seeking to hold onto with the levelling up plan.
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