Cabinet minister Michael Gove has dubbed Lisa Nandy “the Marcus Rashford of the Labour party” in baffling comments in the Commons as the pair clashed over funding for deprived communities.
Labour’s shadow levelling-up secretary said the government must end the “Hunger Games style competition” for funds – calling Mr Gove’s levelling up department the “biggest loser” from the autumn Budget.
“Only a third of the levelling up funds have been allocated and after wasting our time with the short-lived investment zones, the second round is months behind schedule,” Ms Nandy said.
She added: “So can we bring some sense to this madness – end the Hunger Games style competition and allow all our communities not just his favourites to decide how their own money is spent?”
Mr Gove shot back by describing Lisa Nandy as the “Marcus Rashford of the Labour Party – the person coming on at the last minute may actually change the fortunes of the team for the better”.
In an apparent reference to Ms Nandy being a potential replacement for leader Sir Keir Starmer, he added: “I wish [her] good luck in all future penalty shootouts – if it is Hunger Games they’re talking about then it’s the Labour leadership which is closer to that than any other contest in this House.”
Ms Nandy responded: “I’m more than happy to be compared to Marcus Rashford, feeding our kids when their government lets them go starving hungry.”
Mr Gove, made levelling up secretary last month by new PM Rishi Sunak, acknowledged that the government to “look at formula funding” previously used to dish out levelling up funds.
The IPPR North think tank has estimated that £560m will be lost from levelling up pots of money because of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s decision not to “inflation-proof” the funds.
Challenging Mr Gove over real-term cuts, Ms Nandy asked: “When they came for his Budget was he just ignored by the chancellor or did he not put up any fight at all?”
Mr Gove claimed that the government had committed to “a record increase in funding for local government at the time of the previous spending review”. He said ministers had also secured “billions additionally for adult social care and for children’s services”.
The levelling up minister also revealed that reforms to the “unpopular” and regressive council tax could be unveiled in the new year.
He told MPs on Tuesday that Mr Hunt was considering changes, as he conceded local government finance must be made “simpler and clearer”.
Speaking to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, said: “It’s a challenge, it’s one we want to look at … Hopefully we may be able to say more in the new year.”
The minister also defended against claims from Sir Christopher Chope, the Tory MP for Christchurch, that plans to allow council tax to rise by as much as 5 per cent would leave many in “council tax poverty”.
Mr Gove said: “I recognise the strains and pressures being faced by his constituents but I would also say at a time when belts are having to be tightened everywhere, it is terrible thing to say, but I actually feel sorrier for some people, not in Christchurch, but in other parts of the country.”
“Because it is already the case that the relatively wealthy and the relatively older in the country have it relatively better,” he added.