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UK PM boosts no-deal Brexit spending ahead of local election test

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Britain's Boris Johnson faces his first test at the ballot box Thursday in a by-election that could reduce his parliamentary majority to just one, as his new government vowed to double funding for a possible no-deal Brexit.

[LONDON] Britain's Boris Johnson faces his first test at the ballot box Thursday in a by-election that could reduce his parliamentary majority to just one, as his new government vowed to double funding for a possible no-deal Brexit.

Finance minister Sajid Javid announced Wednesday an extra £2.1 billion (S$3.6 billion) to prepare for leaving without an agreement, with a parliamentary showdown looming when MPs return from their summer recess in September.

The extra cash will be used to launch a public information campaign and "accelerate preparations at the border, support business readiness and ensure the supply of critical medicines," a government statement said.

John McDonnell, finance spokesman of the main opposition Labour Party branded it an "appalling waste of taxpayers' cash" and Labour MP Meg Hillier, who heads parliament's spending watchdog, said it would probe how the money was being spent.

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Mr Johnson's Brexit plan could also become harder to enact as his governing Conservative Party looks set to lose the Welsh seat of Brecon and Radnorshire to a pro-Europe candidate on Thursday.

He is already facing strong opposition in the 650-seat parliament to his plan to take Britain out of the European Union without a deal if necessary on October 31 amid fears of the severe economic fallout.

Victory for the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats in Brecon would embolden those opposition MPs and some Conservatives who have pledged to do whatever it takes to stop such a "no deal" departure.

- Brexit party challenge -

Thursday's by-election was called after former Conservative MP Chris Davies was forced out, following his conviction for making false expenses claims.

He insists it was an honest mistake and is standing again, but polling points to a win for the Lib Dems, who have previously held the seat.

Number Cruncher Politics, a polling consultancy, put the Lib Dems on 43 per cent, the Conservatives on 28 percent, Nigel Farage's Brexit party on 20 percent and Labour on eight percent.

However, another Wales-wide survey by YouGov published this week gave an unexpected boost to the Conservatives, which experts attributed to a modest "Boris bounce".

Brecon and Radnorshire voted 52 pe cent to leave the European Union in the 2016 vote -- echoing the UK-wide result.

Mr Johnson, a leading Brexit campaigner in the referendum, made a low-key visit on Tuesday to meet Davies.

He urged voters not to defect to the Brexit Party, which has been capitalising on the political deadlock over Britain's EU departure.

"The Brexit party cannot deliver Brexit, only the Conservatives can," Johnson said, adding that the Lib Dems "will do everything they can to stop Brexit".

In European elections in May, the Brexit Party won 31 per cent of the vote, pushing the Conservatives into fifth place with just nine percent.

The pro-European Welsh nationalists and Green party are not fielding candidates in Brecon to avoid splitting the anti-Brexit vote.

- 'Political need' -

Mr Johnson says he wants an EU divorce deal but argues the terms negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May -- which parliament has rejected three times -- are unacceptable.

EU leaders have repeatedly said the existing deal is the only one on the table, with both sides' stances appearing increasingly entrenched.

Fears Britain was heading into a disorderly split with its closest trading partner sent the pound to new two-year lows against the dollar and the euro this week.

Mr Johnson's no-deal cash boost will fund a Europe-wide media blitz, including adverts in major continental newspapers, aimed at convincing EU governments Britain is serious about leaving without a deal, Politico reported.

Meanwhile anaylsts questioned how much of the funding was new and whether it would actually be spent in the next 91 days before the Brexit deadline.

"What has changed, of course, is the political need to be seen to be ramping up preparation," The Times newspaper's Oliver Wright wrote in an analysis.

"When the dust settles, what is allocated and what has been spent may be two very different figures."

 

AFP