Boris Johnson has said the Brexit campaign’s claim of an extra £350m a week to spend on the NHS was an underestimate – but his working out shows why the original figure was a lie.
The foreign secretary claimed the official Vote Leave campaign could have used a higher figure as the UK’s gross contribution would rise to £438m by 2021, the last year of an expected transition period.
According to the Guardian, he claimed Britain’s contribution to the EU budget was already at £362m a week.
Mr Johnson told the newspaper: “There was an error on the side of the bus. We grossly underestimated the sum over which we would be able to take back control.”
The use of “grossly” may have been a Freudian slip by Mr Johnson. Because, while Vote Leave was deliberately vague during the referendum campaign about the provenance of its figure, Mr Johnson today explicitly states he is dealing in gross numbers and defends their use.
He argues that it is reasonable to use the gross figure because the UK government would ‘take back control’ of the full amount.
But by neglecting to take into account the UK’s rebate – which never leaves the Treasury, never mind the Government’s “control” in the first place – he has in effect confirmed the original £350m slogan as a sham.
After reviving the argument in September, the foreign secretary was accused of “misusing” official figures to highlight the benefits of Brexit by UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir David Norgrove.
The watchdog had already warned Vote Leave the number lacked “clarity” because it referred only to the UK’s gross annual contribution and did not take into account Britain’s rebate, won by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, or any other payments that come back from the EU.
The UK has a veto over the EU budget including changes to that rebate. The money never leaves the Treasury and the government can control how it is spent – whether that be on the NHS or elsewhere. The most recent figures, published by the Treasury in 2016, show the UK had a rebate of £75m a week applied before any money went to Brussels.
Include EU spending in the UK – on agricultural subsidies, research and grants to less-developed regions such as Cornwall and West Wales – the UK net payment comes down to about £160m a week.
Post-Brexit, Mr Johnson has said that ‘a lot of that money’ could go elsewhere, and specifically to the NHS. But, again, this does not take into account that the UK government will need much of it to keep farm subsidies at present levels, as promised, until at least 2020 and probably longer, as well as, presumably, continuing to fund projects in those less-developed regions already under way.
Labour MP Alison McGovern, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign for close ties with the EU, said: “Our NHS is in the middle of a winter crisis and Boris Johnson’s solution is to return to the scene of his previous crimes and promise ever larger slices of pie in the sky.”
And Eloise Todd, CEO of anti-Brexit campaign Best For Britain, said: “This is a yet another untruth from Boris, a man who has become so obsessed with the lie he slapped on the side of the bus.
“You have the sense that Boris will be arguing about £350m, that bus and that pledge for the rest of his political life.”