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The problems with Theresa May’s £1.6bn Brexit bribe for Labour MPs

The amount being offered is less than the amount cut from the average local council, let alone something that could genuinely transform local communities. 

By Stephen Bush

How low are the chances of Theresa May’s agreement passing the House of Commons on 12 March? Well, the DUP’s parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds told the Westminster Hour last night that he wants “treaty-level, legally binding” change to the backstop agreement – which is nothing doing, at least not without losing further votes among Conservative MPs by making Brexit softer.

What about the government’s attempt to woo Labour MPs in Leave areas with funds for their constituencies? Well, that’s not going so well either. The government will announce £1.6bn of public funding over six years – for context, local authorities have had their budgets cut by £16bn since 2010. As Labour MPs are angrily pointing out, the total pool of funds earmarked for their specific regions is less than the amount cut from the average local council, let alone something that could genuinely transform their local communities. 

The bigger problem for May is that she is looking for votes in the wrong places in the wrong way. There is no point spending money to get John Mann to back Brexit because he’s going to do it anyway for free. The public spectacle of offering money for votes makes it harder, not easier, for Labour MPs who want to avoid another referendum and believe it is in their political interest locally to back a deal. That the money is so small means that it won’t receive any sympathetic coverage from policy wonks. That the limited cash is being confined to Labour areas will irritate Conservative MPs, particularly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs in areas with acute rural poverty.

It’s a mess all round.

As I explain in more detail here, the big problem for Labour MPs in Leave seats’ is that they need a justification to Labour members as to why they voted for the Brexit deal, rather than a justification to their constituents overall. A cash injection that falls miles short even of making up for the cuts to local government isn’t going to cut the mustard.

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Taken together, it makes it less likely that the deal will pass on 12 March and may well delay rather than accelerate the movement of Labour MPs towards supporting the deal in parliament.