Rishi Sunak challenged about Covid record at Tory leadership hustings

Rishi Sunak was openly challenged on his track record of pandemic support for businesses by Tory party members last week at a meeting to drum up support for the Conservative leadership contender.

In a video taken last Friday, Mr Sunak suggests to Conservative party members that people caught in the gaps of Treasury support during the COVID-19 pandemic were not Tory voters.

The former chancellor was then put on the spot about lack of support for small businesses by party members who said he risked losing 3 million votes in the next general election by failing to plug a gap in critical economic support.

Mr Sunak was told that people had lost families, businesses and even taken their own lives due to the shortfall in economic aid.

“I appreciate it was difficult,” he said, but he appeared to brush off suggestions it could cost the Conservative party votes at the next general election.

Mr Sunak looked uncomfortable as he tried to move on from the criticism before being ushered away to greet other conservative members.

While many workers received furlough money – where the government stepped in to pay their wages – some fell into the gaps between schemes.

In many cases this was if they failed to qualify either for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), or for those with an employer, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS).

The National Audit Office said that as many as 2.9 million people were not eligible for the schemes in its examination of pandemic economic support.

“If we don’t sort the gaps in support they will not vote Conservative in the next general election,” Donna Potter, a Conservative party member said to Mr Sunak, in reference to the 3 million people who fell into the cracks of Treasury financial aid.

Mr Sunak replied: “As it turned out, lots of them probably were not Conservatives in the first place.”

“Not all of them,” he added, after being challenged by a second activist who said “lots of them are conservatives, trust me, and lots of them are conservative members as well”.

“People have lost their homes, their businesses,” Ms Potter said.

“Thirty suicides,” said the second activist, citing figures gathered by Excluded Unity Alliance Campaign and other groups. The groups support those who were left out of some covid support schemes, and claim to have gathered accounts from close lovedones of those who took their own lives after falling through gaps in COVID aid.

Before being cut-off, Mr Sunak sought to support this assertion about the 3 million people’s voting intentions, saying “we did some…” – without finishing his sentence, suggesting there may have been research into the crossover between government pandemic support and groups’ voting intention.

Ms Potter said this was evidence suggesting that the allocation of resources during the pandemic might have been politically led.

“Around 3 million hardworking British taxpayers, through no fault of their own, were abandoned by the former Chancellor who denied them access to meaningful financial support based on their voting intentions. This is a grave injustice that needs immediate resolution as the Excluded SMEs and freelancers are fundamental to economic recovery,” she said.

The heated exchange was the result of questioning by people linked to the so-called ‘excluded’ campaign. The campaign is not party political but does state and comprises a range of groups created by limited company directors, short term contractors and freelancers who received little or no Treasury support during the crisis.

Some, but not all companies qualified for so-called Bounce Back Loans, but business owners claim this simply lumbered them with long term large amounts of debt, when others did not have to repay government support.

Some polling of large Facebook member groups formed from ‘excluded’ workers held polls on previous and future voting habits.

One was a group run by Forgotten Ltd, which has 12,000 members, according to its organiser, Keith Webb. A Facebook poll of the group in which 1,300 took part showed 63 per cent of those individuals said they had voted conservative at the last general election in March 2021.

A second poll asked about future intention showed that the vast majority, 60 per cent would not vote conservative again.

However, the share of Labour’s vote stayed static, suggesting they might be less likely to cast a vote at all, rather than throw their weight behind a different party. Mr Webb, himself a former conservative voter, is now emailing these findings to local conservative associations across the UK, according to correspondence seen by The Independent. The emails lay out the concerns of conservative voting entrepreneurs about Mr Sunak’s pandemic response.

After trying to address activists concerns’ by sign-posting them to the government’s Help To Grow initiative which offers management and digital training for firms, Mr Sunak was steered away from the conversation.

A spokesperson for Mr Sunak’s leadership bid did not respond to a request for comment.

Douglas Mateo

Douglas holds a position as a content writer at Neptune Pine. His academic qualifications in journalism and home science have offered her a wide base from which to line various topics. He has a proficiency in scripting articles related to the Health industry, including new findings, disease-related, or epidemic-related news. Apart from this, Douglas writes an independent blog and assists people in living healthy life.

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