May accused of buying Brexit votes

LONDON • Theresa May is promising a £1.6 billion (RM8.56 billion) boost for poorer areas of the UK as she steps up efforts to get her Brexit deal over the line.

The Stronger Towns Fund launched yesterday was immediately attacked as an attempt by the prime minister (PM) to “buy” the support of Opposition politicians ahead of crunch House of Commons votes on her unpopular withdrawal agreement.

“For too long in our country prosperity has been unfairly spread,” May said in a statement released by her office. “Communities across the country voted for Brexit as an expression of their desire to see change — that must be a change for the better, with more opportunity and greater control.”

But her opponents claimed she’s merely offering sweeteners to woo Labour MPs in constituencies that voted to leave the European Union (EU) in the 2016 referendum.

“Investment in skills and training is always welcome, but we need to go behind this new fund and see it for what it is — a desperate measure to buy votes,” said Anna Soubry, who defected from May’s Conservative Party in February to join the new Independent Group of MPs.

With 25 days to go until Britain is due to exit the EU, May is still battling to find a deal with the bloc that is acceptable to the British Parliament after her original agreement was rejected in a crushing defeat in January.

She has promised to put a revised deal to the House of Commons by March 12 and if that is rejected, MPs will be offered votes on whether to exit the EU without a deal or to delay Brexit.

May is hoping to convince Brexiteers in her own party, many of whom fear that any delay could mean no Brexit. But if she fails, she will need the help of Labour Party lawmakers and some in Leave-supporting districts have indicated they are willing to break ranks.

They include Caroline Flint, who on Sunday urged leader Jeremy Corbyn to offer MPs a free vote. Speaking on Sky News, she said dozens of Labour lawmakers were ready to back an “improved” Brexit deal and warned that as many as 70 were opposed to the second referendum now favoured by the party leadership. Still, May’s offer of extra cash was branded a “huge disappointment” by Labour’s Gareth Snell, one of those MPs who aligns with Flint.

Hopes that more of May’s own Conservatives could back a revised deal were boosted over the weekend with news that the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tories (ERG) has softened its red lines for supporting her plan. The ERG laid down three tests that must be met, according to the Sunday Times:

• A legally binding clause that “unambiguously overrides” the text of the withdrawal agreement.

• Stronger language that the Irish border backstop plan will be temporary.

• A “clear and unconditional route out of the backstop if trade talks fail”. A committee of eight senior eurosceptics will scrutinise the government’s revised backstop proposals, which Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is seeking to renegotiate in Brussels.

On Sunday, Trade Secretary Liam Fox welcomed the ERG’s new stance as a “genuine attempt to map out common ground” with May, though there is scepticism that the EU would agree to any of the concessions.

In a separate development, Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers, expressed optimism that a breakthrough on the backstop is near. Brady urged his Tory colleagues to “pull together behind the PM” if she offers the right compromise.

Cox, for his part, will return to Brussels this week for more negotiations, Communities Secretary James Brokenshire told BBC Radio yesterday.

Of the funds being pledged by May, £1 billion will be allocated using a needs-based formula, with more than half going to towns across the north to help create jobs and the Midlands getting over £300 million. Another £600 million will be available through a bidding process to communities in any part of the country.

Support for Brexit was strongest in areas such as northeast England and the Midlands, which have some the highest unemployment and the lowest incomes in the country. — Bloomberg