Rishi Sunak has claimed he was the Conservative Party’s “most northern chancellor” for 70 years, as he sought to win the support of Tory members at a leadership hustings in Leeds.
The Southampton-born, Oxford-educated and now London-dwelling leadership candidate went head-to-head with rival and frontrunner Liz Truss in front of the Tory faithful on Thursday night in the first of 12 such events across the country.
During questions from the audience, one Tory member from Tatton, near Manchester Airport, challenged Mr Sunak that the government was failing to deliver its “brilliant” vision for the Northern Powerhouse, net-zero and levelling up, which he lamented “isn’t at the centre of this campaign”.
Going further, he told the former chancellor: “The Treasury seems to view the North as a cost, not a great value-for-money investment.”
But Mr Sunak – who took over as chancellor in 2020 from Rochdale-born Sajid Javid, the MP for Bromsgrove in the West Midlands – replied that he disagreed “completely” with the Tory member, claiming: “I’m the most northern chancellor that this party has had for something like 70-odd years.
“I’m the chancellor that put the Treasury in Darlington. Not just in the North, but also not in a big city where everyone expected it to go, but to a place like Darlington to demonstrate our commitment to it. I’m the chancellor that signed off on the largest investment in rail infrastructure across the North.”
Mr Sunak, who holds the safe Yorkshire seat of Richmond, also pointed to his plans for a freeport, which he said “right now in Teesside is attracting investment in jobs in the industries of the future – in offshore wind, in hydrogen, in carbon capture and storage”.
Comparing the region five years ago after the collapse of a major steelworks at Redcar cost thousands of people their jobs, the ex-chancellor described the region as now “brimming with opportunity and optimism about the future”, adding: “I want to bring that same degree of optimism and excitement across this country, and across the North.
“I’ve done it as chancellor and I can definitely do it as prime minister,” he added, drawing applause from the initially lukewarm crowd.
Both candidates sought to play up their local links during the hustings, with Mr Sunak describing being elected as Richmond’s MP as “the greatest honour of my life”, and Ms Truss returning to her controversial remarks about her time at school in Leeds.
“I hope there are no teachers of mine in the audience. And if there are, I’m really, really sorry,” the foreign secretary joked, before later claiming that “the teaching was patchy” and “there were kids who fell through the cracks”.
Elsewhere in the hustings, Mr Sunak drew applause with a response that “this is not about what shoes I wear or what suit I’m wearing, this is about what I’m going to do for the country”, after LBC presenter Nick Ferrari challenged him over his “image”.
The hustings host took aim at Mr Sunak having held a US green card while working as chancellor, being photographed with cars belonging to other people, and wearing Prada shoes criticised by Nadine Dorries this week – who later accused the ex-chancellor of having “largely led” a “ruthless coup” against the outgoing prime minister.
The culture secretary’s charge – dismissed by one Tory colleague as “plain stupid” on Thursday – was echoed hours later by one member of the grassroots audience at Leeds’s Centenary Pavilion, who accused Mr Sunak of having “stabbed Boris Johnson in the back”.
But Mr Sunak denied having betrayed the PM and insisted that differences in economic policy were the reason behind his decision to resign, which alongside Mr Javid’s shock departure as health secretary sparked the unprecented slew of ministerial resignations that ended Mr Johnson’s premiership.
A short way into his interview with Mr Sunak, Mr Ferrari was forced to pause by loud cheers and applause from the audience after he mentioned a petition to put Mr Johnson’s name on the leadership ballot alongside those of Mr Sunak and Ms Truss.