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May accused of buying Brexit votes with £1.6b to poor towns
[LONDON] Theresa May is promising a 1.6 billion-pound (S$2.84 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 support of opposition politicians in Leave-supporting districts to back her proposals in crunch House of Commons votes.
"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."
But Mrs May's opponents claimed she's merely offering sweeteners to tempt opposition Labour politicians to back her unpopular withdrawal agreement.
"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 26 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 members of Parliament 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 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 favored by the party leadership.
Hopes that more of Mrs 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 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 euroskeptics 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 Mrs May, though there is skepticism 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. Mr Brady urged his Tory colleagues to "pull together behind the prime minister" if she offers the right compromise.
Of the funds being pledged by Mrs May, 1 billion pounds 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 pounds. Another 600 million pounds 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.