Theresa May accussed of ‘Brexit bribe’ with new towns fund

Theresa May has been accused of offering Labour MPs “Brexit bribe” funds for run-down towns amid reports the Government has abandoned attempts to put a time limit on the Irish backstop.

As the Prime Minister promised a £1.6 billion package for “left behind” communities in predominately Leave areas, hardline Brexiteers continued to insist on major concessions from Brussels in order to back Mrs May’s deal.

However, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has dropped attempts to secure key Brexiteer demands for a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop, or an end date to it, according to the Daily Telegraph.

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Prime Minister Theresa May announced the fund for pro-Brexit towns this morning. Picture: Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA Wire
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There is no direct allocation for Scotland announced in the funding plan.

But the UK Government says it will also seek to ensure towns across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will benefit from the new funding.

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The DUP and the Tory European Research Group (ERG) have made it clear they will not support the PM’s withdrawal agreement in crunch Commons votes next week without such legally binding measures.

They oppose the backstop, which is intended to prevent a hard border in Ireland, because it will see the UK obeying EU customs rules if no wider trade agreement is reached after a transition period.

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The Attorney General is focusing on securing an enhanced “arbitration mechanism” that allows the UK or the EU to provide formal notice that the backstop should come to an end, it has been reported.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Attorney General continues to pursue legally binding changes to the backstop that are necessary to ensure it cannot be indefinite.

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“We will not, however, comment on the specifics of negotiations at this critical stage.”

With the PM set to hold a “meaningful vote” on her Brexit plan by 12 March, she was accused of trying to “buy” the support of Labour MPs in Leave seats with the funding for deprived towns.

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Mrs May said: “For too long in our country prosperity has been unfairly spread.

“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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“These towns have a glorious heritage, huge potential and, with the right help, a bright future ahead of them.”

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell branded the initiative a “desperate bribe”.

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He said: “This towns fund smacks of desperation from a Government reduced to bribing MPs to vote for their damaging flagship Brexit legislation.”

The Independent Group’s Brexit spokeswoman Anna Soubry said the move was a “desperate measure to buy votes”.

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Ms Soubry said: “Voters will not be fooled, especially those in areas which voted Leave and are now demanding a People’s Vote because they know, whichever way you do it, Brexit will harm their futures.”

The Stronger Towns Fund, launched today, will be “targeted at places that have not shared in the proceeds of growth in the same way as more prosperous parts of the country,” ministers said.

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Of the £1 billion being allocated using a needs-based formula, the North West gets £281 million, the West Midlands £212m, Yorkshire and the Humber £197m, the East Midlands £110m, the North East £105m, the South East £37m, the South West £35m and the East of England £25m.

Another £600 million will be available through a bidding process to communities in any part of the country.

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The ERG has set out three tests that they will judge Mr Cox’s efforts to secure changes to the backstop on.

The group wants a legally binding, treaty level arrangement, the language must not just simply reiterate the temporary nature of the backstop, and there “needs to be a clear and unconditional route out” of the arrangement.

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DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said his party must see legally binding and treaty-level changes to the withdrawal agreement regarding the backstop in order to support it.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “We need something which, whatever its legal form, has legal binding effect and which changes the current meaning of the withdrawal agreement.

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“And which makes clear that it cannot be indefinite, and it cannot be a trap both for the United Kingdom generally and for Northern Ireland in particular.”

The PM said that if her deal is rejected, MPs will be able to vote on whether the UK can leave the EU in a no-deal scenario, and if that is rejected, the Commons can decide on whether to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit.