Rishi Sunak wakes up to election trouble in Cornwall over national service funding

The PM handed out bacon and sausage butties after taking the sleeper train to an election campaign stop in Cornwall (Aaron Chown/PA Wire)
The PM handed out bacon and sausage butties after taking the sleeper train to an election campaign stop in Cornwall (Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak on Wednesday handed out bacon butties after taking the sleeper train to Cornwall - and immediately ran into criticism that his plan to restore national service would cost the region more than £70 million.

Wales and Cornwall would be the two biggest losers of the Conservatives’ campaign pledge to pay for their controversial plan in part by scrapping the UK Shared Prosperity Fund from 2028-29, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

Conscripting 18-year-olds to do a year in the armed forces or for voluntary service would cost £2.5 billion, with £1.5 billion of that coming from getting rid of the national fund and the rest from a new crackdown on tax dodgers, ministers say.

But that means depriving the UK’s poorest regions of many millions in development money, based on the share of 18 year olds across the UK, the IFS calculated.

Wales could lose £275 million per year, Cornwall £72 million, and the North East and Tees Valley mayoral areas a combined £46 million even after accounting for any higher local spending generated by the new National Service.

Greater London, in contrast, would get a boost of about £91 million.

“Abolishing the fund would be abolishing the main widely available, highly targeted scheme that places don’t have to bid for,” IFS expert David Phillips told the Standard.

“It could be sold as a skills policy for young people. But it clearly isn’t a levelling up policy.”

The fund is a hangover of Britain’s membership of the European Union, which apportions funding to left-behind regions. It was rolled over on the current funding formula after Brexit, to ensure no part of the UK lost out.

But Mr Phillips stressed that the EU’s formula was already two decades old, based on a previous budget round.

He said: “You had out-of-date data and big cliff edges for certain regions, so it does need another look.”

Ministers have struggled this week to explain the practicalities of the national service idea but insisted that a Royal Commission will iron out the details if the Tories are re-elected.

Tory sources stressed that the prosperity fund was due to expire next year but has been rolled over for another three years, while the commission will look at ensuring a fair split of funding and activity across the UK’s regions and nations.

Mr Sunak has defended the idea of national service after Labour criticism that he was resorting to “desperate” measures to try to claw back ground in the polls, arguing it would be “transformative” for young people.

But in the first survey conducted fully since the national service proposal was announced, YouGov gave a lead of 27 points to Labour over the Tories, 47 per cent (up three points) to 20 per cent (down two points).

Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party was on 12 per cent (down two) and the Liberal Democrats were on 9 per cent (unchanged).