DAVID Cameron today attempted to laugh off an unguarded comment about Yorkshire suggesting people in the region hate others and each other.
The Prime Minister was recorded making the comment while discussing rival devolution bids from within Yorkshire as he prepared to give a speech in Leeds.
During the conversation with an unnamed man, Mr Cameron told him: “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else, we didn’t realise they hated each other so much.”
The PM was wearing a microphone during the conversation but was not on camera.
It was not clear whether the remark, which was followed by giggling from others, was a prepared “joke” or an unplanned ad lib.
The comment appears to refer to the wrangling in the region over how to take control over more powers and money from Whitehall.
Last week, six different devolution plans were presented to the Government as local authorities in the region failed to reach a comprehensive agreement on the best way forward.
Mr Cameron was later challenged about the comment on the BBC’s Test Match Special programme broadcast from Headingley.,
He said: “I was picked up saying something that was not meant to be broadcast but it was a joke, I was saying to...one of my aides has said to me, there are about five or six different bids from Yorkshire for devolution - different ideas from different parts of Yorkshire so I joked by saying I thought Yorkshiremen had it in for everyone else not for each other....words to that effect but it was a total joke but it’s been picked up and I suspect I’ll be getting a bit of jip from this...but I’ve been absolved by two of the greatest living Yorkshiremen.
“I repeated the joke to them and they said ‘that’s a joke, it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine’...so absolution from those great Yorkshiremen, I hope that will be enough to see me through”.
The devolution proposals presented to Ministers include West Yorkshire councils joining forces with neighbours Harrogate, York, Craven and Selby - an area known as the Leeds City Region - and a rival plan that would see a single devolution deal struck covering an area known as ‘Greater Yorkshire’ stretching across West, North and East Yorkshire.
At the event in Leeds this morning, Mr Cameron took the opportunity to appeal to council leaders to find a way forward.
He said: “It’s very exciting that different authorities in Yorkshire have come up with a range of schemes for that devolution to take place.
“Obviously they have only just arrived and we now to examine them but I would hope that the more that politicians can work together and come together across party lines and try and agree the right structure the easier it will be to devolve those powers for the benefit of people here in Yorkshire.”
The devolution debate has begun to fracture on party lines in recent days with Conservative MPs and councillors largely supporting the Greater Yorkshire idea and Labour councillors pushing for the Leeds City Region proposal.
But the Prime Minister today pledged to judge the region’s devolution proposals on their merits.
Describing the proposals submitted by six different groups earlier this month, David Cameron said they had produced some ‘exciting’ ideas over transport and skills.
He wouldn’t be drawn on whether there was a front-runner, but said he was looking forward to reviewing them.
He said: “I think the whole point about this process is we are asking local communities to come up with proposals and there’s no one size fits all. Different things can be done in different parts of the country, different combinations of authorities can come together in Yorkshire obviously a lot of different proposals have come forward and we are looking forward to studying them.”
However he asked that political leaders come together for the good of the region and reiterating in his speech in Leeds that the devolution vision is embedded in cross-party values.
He said: “What’s exciting is that people are really engaged in the process and universities are involved, different authorities are involved, people have worked across different political boundaries to try and come up with exciting proposals but we will look at them on their merits but obviously the more politicians that can come together locally the better.”
Councillor Peter Box, leader of Wakefield Council and chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said Mr Cameron’s comment was a “joke”.
Councillor Box, who is involved in the devolution bid from the Leeds City Region, said the joke stemmed from the high number of devolution bids entered from across Yorkshire.
He said: “He was using the fact that there were so many bids from Yorkshire to try to make a joke.”
He added: “There is rivalry between Yorkshire. There’s always been rivalry.
“The reason I found it quite amusing is there’s some truth in it. We’re quite tribal, we’re competitive within Yorkshire, let alone with the rest of the country.”
Councillor Box continued: “I’m a Yorkshireman, I’m proud of being from Yorkshire, I think we’re the best county in the world, but I’m not going to criticise David Cameron over what was meant to be a joke.”
Mr Cameron’s remark was criticised on Twitter with users calling him “arrogant” and “toffee-nosed”.
Catherine Jones tweeted: “Cameron thinks Yorkshire people hate everyone probably because everyone in Yorkshire hates him.”
Another tweeter, Luke, from Wakefield, wrote: “Us Yorkshire folk don’t hate everyone Mr Cameron......Just you.”
But Liam Ronan, who described himself as a Sheffielder in Leytonstone, east London, backed the Prime Minister, writing: “He makes a fair enough point to be honest!”
A transcript of the exchange was posted on Twitter by a BBC correspondent.
Downing Street has so far not commented.