TalkTV’s Piers Morgan has told Rishi Sunak his apparent bet over the success of the Government’s Rwanda asylum scheme “definitely stands”.
The Prime Minister, who has been criticised over the “depraved” wager with the broadcaster, on Tuesday denied the it was a mistake but admitted he had been caught off guard when Morgan shook hands with him on the bet.
The presenter offered the Prime Minister a £1,000 charity bet that ministers would not be able to send asylum seekers to Rwanda by the time of the election.
EXCLUSIVE: Rishi Sunak bets Piers Morgan £1,000 to a refugee charity that he will get illegal immigrants on planes before the election.
— Piers Morgan Uncensored (@PiersUncensored) February 5, 2024
The Prime Minister faced questions about making the bet on a whim on such a controversial subject at a time when many households are struggling to make ends meet.
Mr Sunak told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I’m not a betting person and I was taken totally by surprise in the middle of that interview.”
Asked if it was a mistake, he said: “No, well, the point I was trying to get across – as I was taken totally by surprise – the point I was trying to get across was actually about the Rwanda policy and about tackling illegal migration because it’s something I care deeply about.
“Obviously people have strong views on this and I just was underlining my absolute commitment to this policy and my desire to get it through Parliament, up and running, because I believe you need to have a deterrent.”
Asked if he understood the financial pressures facing ordinary households, Mr Sunak said: “When it comes to cost of living, when I first got this job I set out five priorities – the first of them was to halve inflation because I absolutely understood that the cost of living was the most pressing problem most families faced.”
Morgan hit out at some of the commentary and criticism of the offered bet, but warned the Prime Minister it “definitely stands”.
“I do think that some people may have lost the plot in the maelstrom of pearl-clutching in the last 24 hours and forgotten actually that I did start the process of this wager by saying the bet proceeds would be going to a refugee charity.
“I was actually trying to flush out the Prime Minister’s conviction on a policy that I believe has always been doomed for failure and is bad for this country. He was trying to underscore his genuine belief that it could work,” he said on his TalkTV programme.
Mr Sunak has made the Rwanda plan central to his promise to “stop the boats” and curb migrant crossings in the Channel.
But time is running out for Mr Sunak to get flights in the air, with the House of Lords able to significantly stall his Rwanda legislation and jeopardise an ambition to have removal flights leaving by the spring.
Downing Street later said the Prime Minister believes the Government is doing an “outstanding” job despite his Education Secretary having earlier said it did not merit a top performance rating.
Asked about the interview in which Gillian Keegan said she would assess the Tories’ performance as “good”, a Number 10 spokeswoman said: “I think the point that was being made, and the Prime Minister would agree with, is that the Government is always looking to improve and build on successes.”
The Prime Minister was criticised by opposition parties about the bet, with the SNP reporting Mr Sunak to his own independent adviser on ministers’ interests and the Cabinet Secretary over what the party said was a potential breach of the ministerial code.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, said the “depraved” incident saw “the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet reduced to a crude bet”.
Labour frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth said: “Not a lot of people facing rising mortgages, bills and food prices are casually dropping £1,000 bets.”
The Opposition later referred to the wager in a new advert attacking the Prime Minister, featuring a picture of Mr Sunak and Morgan’s handshake along with the words: “While your pockets are bare, Rishi’s betting with a grand he has spare.”
Downing Street later refused to say whether the Prime Minister regrets making the wager and sought to clarify that he had meant he was not a betting person “in general” when asked about previous comments in which Mr Sunak referred to having enjoyed spread betting on cricket.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “As he said this morning, he was surprised by it, but it reflects the conversation that he had with Piers Morgan reflects his absolute confidence in getting flights of the ground. Does he regret having that confidence? No.”
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Test Match Special during last year’s Ashes, Mr Sunak had said he used to enjoy spread betting while working as an investment banker.
Number 10 said he was “obviously referring to a time many years ago” and “what he was referring to (today) is the fact that in general he’s not a betting person”.
Mr Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, have a combined wealth estimated at around £529 million, according to 2023’s Sunday Times Rich List.
He said he was “sad” to hear about parents being so strapped for cash they were watering down baby formula for their infants.
Challenged about that example on BBC Radio 5 Live, the Prime Minister said: “My job is to make sure everyone has the financial security that they want for them and their families.
“And of course I’m sad to hear that someone’s in that situation.”
He added: “Of course it’s sad if someone’s got a little one in their lives and they’re having to do that. That’s an incredibly sad thing.”