A Tory minister has been forced to apologise for describing Birmingham and Blackpool as “godawful”.
Speaking at the launch of the government’s new digital strategy on Thursday, Heather Wheeler, a junior minister in the Cabinet Office, was reported to have said: “I was just at a conference in Blackpool or Birmingham or somewhere godawful.”
Wheeler subsequently apologised in a tweet, saying that she “made an inappropriate remark that does not reflect [her] actual view”.
The leader of Blackpool council, Lynn Williams, responded to Wheeler’s “ignorant and ill-advised” remarks, saying they were particularly frustrating because the government was supposed to be working alongside the Lancashire town to tackle social deprivation as part of its flagship levelling up programme.
“We know we’ve got a lot of social inequalities to deal with and we’re actually meant to be working with the government to deal with those as part of the levelling up programme so, yeah, it’s just frustrating,” she said.
The transparency of the programme, which has been a cornerstone of the government’s platform since 2019, has come into question, with leaders outside London claiming that some promised investment has not been received and other funds have been funnelled to Conservative seats.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Williams said the popular seaside resort was “used to getting sort of ignorant and ill-advised comments” and implored Wheeler to “come and have a look round” herself.
She said the remarks had made her “quite cross”, particularly after the town hosted the Tory spring conference in March and in light of a huge rise in footfall in the past two years. “We’re doing something right. People love Blackpool,” she said.
Asked about Wheeler’s apology, she appeared unconvinced. “I mean, you said it, you thought it,” she said, adding that making Blackpool and Birmingham the butt of the joke was “more evidence of what the true thoughts are”.
Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, also responded to Wheeler’s comments, tweeting that while “it’s okay to not like everywhere … It’s not ok to look down on them in a sneering way”.
Alongside her comments on the “implied snobbery” expressed by the Conservative junior minister, Phillips said her own view of patriotism was “about finding the joy from the people and the grit as well as the scenery in our country”.
“Being a patriot, as I’m sure Wheeler wishes to present herself and thinks she is, is about much more than singing Jerusalem and waving flags, that’s about show,” she said.
Williams and Phillips join a number of key voices in their party in criticising the junior minister’s comments. Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, 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.”
Lisa Nandy, the shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, wrote: “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’.”