Week in politics: Sunak’s gamble, child poverty concerns and more

Rishi Sunak visited Teesside on Saturday, where Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen announced he is backing his leadership bid. Credit: PA

There are of course three different audiences the Conservative leadership candidates need to try to appeal to.

Among two of them, Rishi Sunak - the MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire - is still the frontrunner. 

He has had the backing of the highest number of Tory MPs - though not an overwhelming choice, he is still very likely to make it through the elimination rounds this week.

Polling suggests he is the best placed to take on Labour - though that’s likely to have been influenced by his leadership rivals having less recognition among ordinary voters.

The final group is Conservative members, who will ultimately pick their party’s new leader and the next Prime Minister, and other polling suggests Mr Sunak is not particularly popular among them.

That’s linked to how he ran a high-tax Treasury, as many yearn for a return to traditional small-state Conservative values.

His leadership rivals are pledging rapid tax cuts, with just a few warm words about ‘levelling up’, which does make sense as one clear implication is that there would be less money around to invest in regions like the North East.

Mr Sunak continues to insist tax cuts could only come when inflation is under control, and he’s now got the endorsement of interventionist Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, after signing up to his pledge list for more levelling up.

That feels like a doubling down from the former Chancellor, as he gambles that he can change the minds of many party members this summer.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer gave a speech in Gateshead on Monday, where he criticised the “fantasy economics” of the Tory leadership contenders.

He also described the government’s levelling up agenda as a “false choice… of north versus south - city versus town… We need every community to make a contribution to growing national prosperity.”

Child poverty figures released on Tuesday raised new questions about how effective levelling up policies have been so far. 

Research for the End Child Poverty Coalition revealed 38% of children in the North East are living in poverty, a rate that has grown in recent years and overtaken London to become the highest in the country.

South Shields Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck led a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday, calling for an extension of free school meals to children in all families receiving Universal Credit or equivalent benefits, and an automatic registration scheme to replace an “overly bureaucratic” registration process.

Education minister Will Quince said eligibility for free school meals had already been extended several times by this government, and extending further would be “extremely costly.”

He said he would keep it under review, but “the current funding is targeted at those who need it most.”

Thirsk & Malton Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake said this week that he’d asked the leading candidates in the Tory leadership battle about the controversial plan for a new asylum reception centre in North Yorkshire, and that “all confirmed they would” review or revoke the policy.

He will no doubt be hoping he can hold the next Prime Minister to that.

A final decision on whether to open the base at Linton-on-Ouse was put on hold a month ago.

The government has said it is “in close contact” with Middlesbrough Council, after a damning audit of the authority called for “urgent action.”

Our regional politics show on Thursday featured some particularly fierce debate over ‘beergate’ - after Durham Police concluded recently that Sir Keir Starmer and colleagues had not broken Covid rules on a visit to Durham last year.

Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck told the North West Durham Conservative MP Richard Holden, who had pushed the police to reinvestigate, “you wasted police time.”

He insisted “there was significant new evidence” worthy of investigation.

Catch up on Around the House - which also includes a discussion on the departure of Boris Johnson and what is next for our region.