Boris Johnson has insisted there has been ‘no political bias’ in the way the government’s new ‘towns fund’ has been distributed - calling any such suggestion ‘pure cynicism’.
Answering a question from the Manchester Evening News at a convention of northern leaders in Yorkshire, he insisted the cash would help local communities decide for themselves how they want to improve their area.
He was responding to the suggestion that the first wave of his £3.6bn towns fund, released a couple of weeks ago, has been focused on areas the Tories need to hold or win in an upcoming election .
M.E.N. analysis shows 94 of the 100 towns are in Leave-voting areas, with the remaining six all in Tory marginals in danger of being lost to Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
Nearly two thirds of the towns are in or serve seats held by majorities of under 5,000, with 22 of them among the most marginal nationally - requiring a swing of less than 1pc to move in or out of Conservative hands.
During a press conference following a speech to business and political leaders in Rotherham, in which the PM had already been heckled about Parliament’s prorogation, the M.E.N. described the key points from that analysis to laughter and applause from the audience, before asking: “Are you using the fund to buy votes?”
Mr Johnson shook his head throughout the question, responding: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Conservatives weren’t in contention in every seat in the country,” a comment that also prompted laughter.
“I can’t - I can’t be remotely surprised that some of the towns in question might shortly have a Conservative MP. If you’ll kindly furnish me with the analysis you’ve done I’d be happy to answer you.
“But what we want are stronger towns across the UK, we want to use the cash to help local people wherever they are to level up and invest in local things for their communities, to improve public amenities, to put in broadband and to bring life to their communities and that’s what we want to do for every town in the country.”
Labour has described the distribution of the fund - ostensibly for so-called ‘left behind’ struggling with post-industrial decline - as ‘naked pork barrelling’, a reference to the practice of directly targeting cash to areas a party most needs to win.
Political analyst Rob Ford, of Manchester University, said earlier in the week that the list looked like an ‘obvious’ Tory electoral strategy at a time when the party may need to take Leave-leaning Labour areas such as Rotherham in order to secure a majority.
However the Prime Minister added, to more laughter: “I’m not aware of any political bias involved. I’m genuinely not aware of any political bias involved in dispersing of those funds.
“And it sounds like pure cynicism.”
That then prompted more laughter, prompting him to add: “Seriously.”
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