Boris Johnson has claimed a controversial £25m handout to a Cabinet minister’s constituency was “independently approved” – even though another minister gave the go-ahead.
Robert Jenrick, the local government secretary, is under fierce pressure after his seat was among 101 winners from the £3.6bn Towns Fund, despite being only 270th on the most-deprived list.
At the weekend, Mr Jenrick admitted the decision was made by Jake Berry, a fellow minister – while he approved a grant to Mr Berry’s constituency.
In the Commons, Mr Johnson faced accusations that the way taxpayers’ cash was allocated to Tory constituencies “all looks a bit grubby”.
But he turned on Matt Western, the Labour MP asking the question, insisting: “All this was independently approved.
“If he has some serious allegation to make against my right honourable friend, then might I suggest he has the guts to make it.”
Labour – which has demanded an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary into the affair – said the answer had failed to clear up the important questions raised.
Steve Reed, the party’s local government spokesman, said the ministers had sought to “funnel money to marginal constituencies as well as their own ahead of the general election”.
“Jenrick has now admitted that he and Berry did a cosy deal to award money to each other’s constituency,” Mr Reed said.
Newark, the main town in Mr Jenrick’s Nottinghamshire seat, received the maximum individual grant of £25m, despite ranking as only the 270th most deprived area in the country.
Meanwhile, Darwen, a town in the constituency of Jake Berry – a minister of state in the communities and local government department until February – was also selected for a grant
Defending the arrangement in a weekend TV interview, Mr Jenrick said: “This is perfectly normal.
“Ministers do not get involved in making decisions for their own constituencies. But neither should their constituencies be victims of the fact that they happen to be [the constituency of] a minister.”
The controversy comes after Mr Jenrick survived the furore after he unlawfully approved a major housing development in a way that benefitted a Tory donor.
Mr Johnson did not explain what he meant by “independently approved”, but appeared to be suggesting that civil servants had not objected to the allocations.
A National Audit Office investigation found that “the scoring of each town was designed as a guide for ministers” only.
But it added: “Ministers’ selections resulted in towns being selected with lower scores than some other towns that were not selected.”