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May accused of buying Brexit votes with £1.6b for towns

London

THERESA May is promising a £1.6 billion (S$2.9 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 was immediately attacked as an attempt by the prime minister to "buy" the backing of opposition politicians in Leave-supporting districts ahead of crunch House of Commons votes on her unpopular withdrawal agreement.

"For too long in our country prosperity has been unfairly spread," Mrs 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."

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But her opponents claimed she's merely offering sweeteners to woo Labour members of Parliament. "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 Mrs May's Conservative Party in February to join the new Independent Group of MPs.

With 25 days to go until Britain is due to leave the European Union, Mrs 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. Mrs 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 support of Labour Party lawmakers who represent constituencies that voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.

They include Caroline Flint, who on Sunday urged leader Jeremy Corbyn to offer MPs a free vote. Speaking on Sky News, she said that 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, the fund was branded a "huge disappointment" by Labour's Gareth Snell, one of those MPs who aligns with Ms Flint.

Of the funds being pledged by Mrs 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. BLOOMBERG