Michael Gove has claimed there is “no evidence of any abuse of levelling up funding” after MPs raised “pork barrel politics” concerns.
The Communities Secretary also insisted he is “solid, 100%, totally behind the Prime Minister” as Boris Johnson fights for his political future.
Conservative MP William Wragg (Hazel Grove) surprised Westminster by alleging that party colleagues trying to trigger a no confidence vote in Mr Johnson had been told public funding for projects in their constituencies would be cut off and threatened with stories in the press to embarrass them.
Christian Wakeford, the Bury South MP who defected to Labour, later described how the Tory whips had warned him over funding for a new school in his constituency if he rebelled in a vote over free school meals.
Speaking in the House of Commons, SNP MP Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) asked: “I am sure he would never accuse a fellow Tory MP of misleading this House, so will he comment on the veracity of the specific remarks from the member from Hazel Grove and his comments that threats have been made to Tory MPs about investment being withdrawn from their constituencies and negative press stories would be released as punishment for supporting a no confidence vote in the Prime Minister?
“Will he outline what investigations he intends to undertake to look into the abuse or the possible abuse of levelling up funds?”
Mr Gove replied: “There is no evidence of any abuse of levelling up funding and, if anyone has it, I hope that they will bring it to the attention of the House.
“As for any suggestion that someone is on the receiving end of lots of negative press stories and that suggests they may be voting against this Government, I can tell you as someone who is solid, 100%, totally behind the Prime Minister, and yet also on the receiving end of a plethora of negative press stories, I can tell you there is no correlation between the two.”
Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen earlier asked for reassurance over his area bidding for “levelling up funding”, given he has voted against the Government.
The MP for North West Leicestershire said: “Given current media speculation about the allocation of levelling up funding, and being a member of this House who has unfortunately had to vote against the Government on several occasions recently, could the Secretary of State reassure me that there is any point in North West Leicestershire reapplying for the levelling up funding?
“And would he agree with me that, were Coalville to be successful in the next round of bidding, it would demonstrate the Government are not engaging in pork barrel politics?”
Mr Gove said he “abjures the whole idea of pork barrels”, adding: “What we both believe in is allocating funding on the basis of merit and need.”
Mr Gove said Mr Bridgen has voted with the Government more often than senior figures on the Labour frontbench, who he said had benefited from the funds, adding: “If a requirement for Government funding were voting with the Government, then I fear the deputy leader of the Labour Party (Angela Rayner) … would have lost out.”
He said: “We are committed to levelling up and uniting the country irrespective of political colour.”
Responding to Labour, the Communities Secretary said what lay behind allegations of partisanship in the way funding was allocated “is the suggestion that somehow civil servants would conspire with ministers deliberately to favour constituencies on the basis of political colouration”.
Shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, had said money has been “flowing” to Cabinet ministers’ constituencies but the Government still refuses to “come clean” on how those decisions are being made.
She added: “This weekend, it became clear that the only way to get money out of his department is to be at the beck and call of the chief whip (Mark Spencer).
“How can any community have confidence that they have a fair shot at getting some of their money back from his department if he won’t release in full the information he holds about how these decisions are being made?”
Communities minister Neil O’Brien replied it is “true” that levelling up funds “have been going to the constituencies of Cabinet ministers” before quickly correcting himself.
He added: “Sorry, I mean shadow cabinet ministers. I must admit, I’ll admit at this despatch box, that money is going to the shadow deputy leader, the shadow education secretary, the shadow health secretary, the shadow culture secretary…”