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 ($2.6 billion, 2.3 billion euros) to prepare for leaving without an agreement, as a parliamentary showdown looms when MPs return from their summer recess in September.
“We have to be prepared because we will be leaving on 31 October,” Javid told reporters during a visit to the Port of Tilbury, east of London, referring to Britain’s latest delayed departure date from the European Union.
“That does require more funding and support in certain priority areas,” he added, as Johnson’s government tries to force Brussels to reopen negotiations over the terms of Brexit by showing it is serious about leaving without a deal after decades of membership.
The cash injection 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.
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 vows to deliver Brexit on October 31 with or without a withdrawal agreement, over fears of the severe economic fallout.
The Bank of England warned Thursday a hard Brexit would hit growth and the pound, as it lowered near-term economic growth forecasts amid the continued uncertainty.
Victory for the staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats in Brecon would embolden those opposition MPs and some Conservatives who have pledged to do whatever it takes to stop 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%, the Conservatives on 28%, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party on 20% and Labour on 8%
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% to leave the European Union in the 2016 vote — echoing the UK-wide result.
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 anti-EU populist Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has been capitalising on the deadlock over Britain’s stalled departure from the bloc.
In European elections in May, it won 31% of the vote, pushing the Conservatives into fifth place with just 9%.
The pro-European Welsh nationalists and Green party are not fielding candidates in Brecon to avoid splitting the anti-Brexit vote.
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.
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 no deal, Politico reported.
Meanwhile, analysts questioned how much of the funding was new and whether it would actually be used in the 91 days remaining before Brexit.
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