Rishi Sunak said he was taken by surprise when he appeared to accept a £1,000 bet over the success of the Government’s Rwanda asylum scheme.
The Prime Minister has been criticised over the “depraved” wager with broadcaster Piers Morgan.
Mr Sunak denied the wager was a mistake but admitted he had been caught off guard when Morgan shook hands with him on the bet.
The TalkTV 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.
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.”
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.”
Asked whether the Prime Minister thinks the Government has done an “outstanding job”, she said: “He does, yes. But as I say, there is always more work to be done and he is committed to continuing to deliver and to continue to improve services, be it education, stopping the boats and delivering on his five priorities, and he and his ministers are working across Government and in all departments to improve people’s lives.”
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.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Rishi Sunak either does not care or does not get it. As the Prime Minister buries his head in the sand and pretends everything is fine, people across the country are suffering.
“Most people when they are hit with a surprise £1,000 bill worry about how they are going to make their next mortgage payments or put food on the table for their children.
“Instead, the Prime Minister does not even register the significance of that amount of money. Out of touch does not even begin to describe Sunak.”
“As a survivor of torture, the idea of making bets on the fate of desperate people is deeply immoral and upsetting,” he said.
Mr Haoussou said the charity is supporting victims of torture who are “terrified” of being sent to Rwanda, adding: “We’ve seen first-hand the awful toll it has taken on people. We need the UK Government to start treating survivors and other refugees – people who’ve fled the most unimaginable horrors – with decency and stop treating us as political playthings.”
Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, Sacha Deshmukh, said: “Placing bets on whether people seeking safety in our country are shipped off to Rwanda is deeply unpleasant and the Prime Minister ought to publicly disavow this cruel media stunt.”
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.
“But my job is to make sure that we can ease those pressures, and, actually, if you look at what was causing those pressures, it was inflation: inflation being at 11%, prices going up by that much every year, it was a real struggle for people.
“That’s why it was important that we prioritised bringing inflation down. It is now coming down. That is real, that will have an impact on people because it will start to ease some of those pressures.”
He said households are “starting to see mortgage rates come down” and the Government has given “meaningful” tax cuts.
He suggested that people with money worries could go to a Citizens Advice Bureau or job centre for help.
In an interview which came as households on low incomes received a £299 cost-of-living payment, Mr Sunak said welfare support and tax cuts are easing the burden on hard-pressed families.