A UK government minister has apologised after calling England’s second city and one of the country’s best-known seaside resorts as “godawful”.
Heather Wheeler referred to Birmingham and Blackpool during a launch of the government’s new digital strategy on Thursday. According to Chris Middleton, a technology journalist who was at the launch, the junior minister in the Cabinet Office said: “I was just at a conference in Blackpool or Birmingham or somewhere godawful.”
He then said that a Cabinet Office official rang him after he first reported Wheeler’s comments saying it was a joke to break the ice.
Wheeler had been speaking at an event in London to launch the government’s new digital strategy, the 2022 to 2025 roadmap to a digital future.
Her remarks came on the same day Boris Johnson was in the Lancashire seaside town about plans to cut taxes an allow people on benefits and living in social housing to buy their own home.
The government has trumpeted levelling up areas outside London, as one of the cornerstones of its policy platform since being elected in 2019.
However leaders outside the capital have claimed that some promised investment has not been provided, and other funds have only been targeted to Conservative seats.
One of the funding pots affected is for improved bus services in “red-wall” areas that swung from Labour to the Conservative party in 2019, and have poor levels of public transport. However in January government documents said the funding was halved from £3bn to £1.4bn.
Among Labour MPs to criticise Wheeler’s comments was the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, who tweeted: “The mask has slipped. This minister has blurted out what Boris Johnson’s Conservatives really think about our communities behind closed doors. The disrespect is off the scale.
“Heather Wheeler has put her utter contempt for voters on show.”
Lisa Nandy, shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities and Wigan MP tweeted: “They tell us they’re levelling up the country but this is what they truly think. They can’t even tell the difference between ‘Blackpool or Birmingham or somewhere godawful.’”
Wheeler has been MP for South Derbyshire since 2010 and is parliamentary secretary for the Cabinet Office. She has previously apologised for remarks about Gypsies and Travellers, and received criticism in 2018 when as homelessness minister she said she did not know why the number of rough sleepers had risen.
On Friday evening she apologised, tweeting: “Whilst speaking at a conference on Thursday, I made an inappropriate remark that does not reflect my actual view. I apologise for any offence caused.”
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office referred the Guardian to her tweet, and did not provide a comment.