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Boris Johnson’s top ten lies in his first year as prime minister

Boris Johnson speaking outside 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Leading political pundit PETER KELLNER on the prime minister’s biggest untruths of the year.

Think of spots and leopards. Boris Johnson became prime minister having been sacked twice from other jobs for telling lies – in 1988 from the Times for fabricating a quote from his godfather; and in 2004 from the Conservative front bench for lying to his party leader about an affair. His supporters must have hoped that he would put his errant past behind him when he entered 10 Downing Street.

He hasn’t. Here, in reverse order as in a pop chart, are his 10 top tangles with the truth in the past 12 months. I would have included Johnson’s corrections or apologies but haven’t found any. The point is not that he makes mistakes: who doesn’t? It’s that he makes so many and never tries to put them right.

10. June 16, 2020: ‘I talked to Marcus Rashford earlier today to congratulate him on his campaign, which to be honest I only became aware of very recently – well, today.’

For more than 24 hours, the news had been dominated by the Manchester United footballer’s campaign for free school meals to be continued through the summer holidays. Ministers initially rejected the idea, only to give in. Challenged afterwards about his U-turn, Johnson insisted he had been unaware of the campaign throughout the previous day. We are asked to believe that while politicians and journalists were talking of little else, and ministers were sent to radio and TV studios to say why Rashford was wrong, Johnson was oblivious to the storm raging around him.

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9. January 31, 2020: ‘This country has reduced CO2 emissions already by 42% on 1990 levels while the economy, under this Conservative government, has grown by 73%’

The figure for emissions is broadly correct, but that for economic growth is wrong. Assuming that ‘this Conservative government’ refers to the period since 2010, the true figure is around 20% (prior to the current pandemic). The 73% refers to the whole period since 1990, 13 years of which were under Labour governments.

8. June 23, 2020. ‘Yes of course it’s perfectly true that it would be great to have an app, but no country currently has a functioning track and trace app’.

Johnson was replying to Keir Starmer in parliament, who raised ‘very serious concerns about the gaps in the current system [for tackling Covid-19], including the absence of an app’.

As the Full Facts fact-checking website said at the time, track and trace apps were being used in France, Germany, Australia, Poland, Latvia, Denmark, Japan and Italy.

7. June 10, 2020. ‘97% of the [primary] schools that have submitted data are now seeing kids come back to school’.

This was Johnson’s response to Starmer’s accusation that ‘parents have lost confidence in the government’s approach’ to school reopening. The Department for Education has since put the number for that day at 69%. In other words, 31% of primary schools had not reopened – 10 times the 3% indicated by Johnson. Twelve days later, Full Facts reported that it had ‘asked Number 10 where Mr Johnson’s 97% figure came from, and we have not heard back’.

6. November 29, 2019. ‘The money going into the NHS as you know, it’s the biggest increase in living memory, a £34 billion increase’.

In his pre-Covid response to a caller on LBC during the election campaign (and on other occasions) Johnson gave this figure for the planned increase in the NHS budget between 2018/19 and 2023/24.

The first problem with Johnson’s claim is that he quoted the cash increase, much of which is needed to offset inflation and prevent the NHS shrinking. What matters is ‘real’ increase after taking account of inflation. This figure is £20.5bn, a little over half the amount Johnson cited.

Second, this is far from ‘the biggest increase in living memory’. There were bigger increases – in both cash and ‘real’ terms – during the last Labour government. Indeed, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Johnson’s planned increase of 3.2% per year in real terms is below the 3.6% average for the 70-year history of the NHS, and barely half the 6% a year achieved during the Blair-Brown years.

5. October 29, 2019: ‘It is a week since this parliament voted, yet again, to force Brussels to keep this country in the European Union for at least another three months, at a cost of £1bn a month’

Twice Johnson told parliament that the delay in Brexit from last October to this January would cost the UK £1bn a month in extending its subscription to the EU. However, as the BBC’s Reality Check pointed out at the time, his figure ‘excludes any money the government gets back from the EU in grants for things like regional development or supporting farmers. When you factor these in, the figure comes down to about £744 million a month.’

More to the point, Johnson’s own deal with the EU required the UK to continue paying its EU membership fee until December this year, when the transition phase ends. Parliament’s decision to defer Brexit by three months did not delay the end of the transition period and hence made no difference at all to Britain’s financial commitment to Brussels.

4. May 21, 2020: Starmer: ‘Does the prime minister think it is right that careworkers coming from abroad and working on our frontline should have to pay a surcharge… to use the NHS themselves?’ Johnson: ‘Those contributions help us to raise about £900m. It is very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources’

Many immigrants from outside the EU currently pay an annual surcharge to use the NHS. It’s currently £400, rising to £624 this October. Johnson’s £900m is the cumulative total of all such payments from all applicable immigrants, whatever their job, over the past four years.

How much would it cost to do what Starmer wanted? At the last count, 237,000 careworkers came from outside the EU. Many have settled in the UK and don’t need to pay the surcharge. Suppose half of them do, and were now to be exempt. This would cost the government £47m a year at the current rate, and £76m a year from October.

3. December 6, 2019: ‘There will be no checks on goods from GB to Northern Ireland or from Northern Ireland to GB’.

A leaked Treasury document listed the checks and controls that would apply to much of the trade across the Irish Sea once Britain had left the EU and after the transition phase was over. These included tariffs, customs union declarations, rules of origin and regulatory checks. HM Revenue and Customs says the extra paperwork alone will cost £15-£56 per consignment.

2. June 3, 2020: ‘Of the tests conducted at the 199 testing centres, as well as the mobile centres, they’re all done within 24 hours.’

Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the House of Commons Health Committee, had asked Johnson to ‘tell us how many of the tests [for Covid-19] are currently being turned round within 24 hours’. Johnson’s reply was contradicted by the NHS’s official statistics, which found that in the week to June 3, the proportion of people in England receiving their tests result within 24 hours was 19% at regional tests sites, 5% at mobile testing units and 6% at satellite test centres.

1. June 17, 2020: Starmer: ‘A report last week from the government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded that there are now ‘600,000 more children living in relative poverty…” Johnson: ‘He is completely wrong in what he says about poverty. Absolutely poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this government and there are hundreds of thousands – I think 400,000 – fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.’

The most widely accepted definition for poverty, not least in government reports, is where household income after housing costs is below 60% of the national median. This was used by the government’s Social Mobility Commission, which said that the number of children living in poverty had risen by 600,000 since 2011.

What about Johnson’s alternative figure? Downing Street has not provided a source. The BBC’s Reality Check Team says it was ‘unable to find any evidence for his claim that there are 400,000 fewer families living in poverty than in 2010’.

Anna Feuchtwang, chair of the End Child Poverty Coalition complained to the government’s own watchdog, the Office for Statistics Regulation. On July 30, the OSR replied. It agreed that Johnson’s statement was ‘incorrect’.

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