A CONSERVATIVE MP criticised for saying football is more important to Northerners than ballet and opera has defended himself.

Jake Berry said that while the two arts are enjoyed by many people in the south of England while many of his constituents preferred going to soccer matches.

The former Northern Powerhouse minister made the comparison as he warned 'northern culture' is being hit by coronavirus restrictions and pressed the government to intervene to save lower league football clubs.

Mr Berry, MP for Rossendale and Darwen, compared Blackburn Rovers and Accrington Stanley to the Royal Ballet and Royal Shakespeare Company as he insisted action is required from Westminster to help protect clubs that are the 'cornerstone' of communities.

Former England and Leicester City footballer Gary Lineker wrote on Twitter: “Yeah, no-one lives and breathes football down sarrrfff.”

Shadow sports minister Alison McGovern wrote: "Ey up northerners. This Tory thinks we don’t have culture oop narth".

Northern Ballet, based in Leeds, expressed disappointment at Mr Berry’s comments and claimed he was perpetuating 'tropes that culture in the north is of less value than that in London'.

It added: "Our home city of Leeds is the only city outside of London to have its own resident ballet, opera and theatre companies."

Mr Berry, who leads the Northern Research Group of more than 50 Tory MPs, made his remarks as MPs debated support for the economy in the north of England.

Speaking in Westminster Hall, Liverpool-born Mr Berry said: “First of all is the hit that northern culture has taken from this Covid crisis.

“For many people who live in London and the south of England, things like the opera house and ballet will be at the heart of their culture.

“But for many of us in the north it is our local football club – our Glyndebourne or Royal Ballet or Royal Opera House or Royal Shakespeare Company will be Blackburn Rovers, Accrington Stanley, Barrow, Carlisle or Sunderland.

“I’d just say to the minister I think there is a time now where if you look at the argument going on between the EFL and the Premier League, the time has come where the Government must seek to intervene to unblock this to save local football clubs across the north of England – many of which are the cornerstone of our communities and at the heart of our culture.”

Mr Berry told the Lancashire Telegraph: "I was not criticising culture. You can love the arts and football as I do. I was just suggesting that it is time that the Premier League did something to preserve clubs in the lower leagues.

"When the stands are open 14,000 people go to Blackburn Rovers. To them, and the people who go to other clubs like Accrington Stanley, they are very much part of the history and heritage of the area.

“No-one is saying football doesn’t exist in the south or that ballet doesn’t exist in the north. no-one is saying that a thriving football league is more important than a thriving arts sector."

He added: “What we are saying is that many of our working communities in the north are built around our football clubs and, disproportionately, those clubs now find themselves on the precipice of financial collapse and supporters will be rightly asking the question why they too are not being given financial assistance through this crisis.”

Treasury minister Kemi Badenoch told MPs the north of England had been a 'hotbed' of energy, ideas and creativity for centuries.