Why Boris Johnson’s ‘£100m-a-week Brexit dividend for the NHS’ is a cynical sham

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson

Why are we so cynical about the foreign secretary's motives, asks STEVE ANGLESEY? Probably for two reasons: everything he's said and everything he's done

News that Boris Johnson is to demand in Cabinet a £100m-a-week 'Brexit dividend' for the NHS has been greeted with a mixed reception. In some quarters there's disbelief. In others derision.

'We've been conned a lot over the past few years, but Boris Johnson trying to set himself up as the great defender of the NHS? Surely no one - but no one - is going to swallow that,' tweeted former Telegraph diarist Tim Walker. 'BREAKING: Boris Johnson is urging the government to pump an additional £100m into his chances of becoming prime minister,' added playwright Dan Rebellato.

Why are we so cynical about the foreign secretary's motives? Probably for two reasons: everything he's said and everything he's done.

It doesn't take too long to decode and dismantle the report, in Tuesday January 23's Times, which seeks to paint BoJo as the great defender of the NHS. We're told that he wants the £5bn-a-year 'Brexit dividend' paid from March next year. Yet Johnson knows that, with Britain paying EU contributions for a two-year transition period necessary to protect British businesses, no scope for such a dividend will exist in 14 months' time, if it ever exists at all. The Office for Budget Responsibility, a government body, estimates that in 2020/21 the actual 'Brexit dividend' for Britain will be a net loss of £300m per week.

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Is Boris pushing for a no-deal Brexit, putting the economy and hundreds of thousands of British jobs at risk, simply in order to tackle the growing lack of faith in him and the whole Brexit project as more and more voters realise that Leave's central campaign promise was a giant con? Draw your own conclusions. 'This isn't about the referendum,' an ally of Johnson told The Times, a sure sign that this is all about the referendum.

That's because Boris and his friends know that since June 23, 2016, a larger and larger slice of voters simply don't believe anything Johnson says. His false premise and false promise - that we send £350m per week to the EU and that it would be spent on the NHS instead - have been dismissed by everyone from Nigel Farage to the head of the UK Statistics Authority. Boris' only defence on the first claim is semantics: that everyone should have known he was using the gross figure of UK contributions before receipts from the EU and the rebates which never actually leave Britain to begin with. His only hope of defending the second claim is to deliver actual money for the NHS.

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Until this money arrives, the former London mayor's standing will continue to plummet. YouGov's latest tracker shows his net favourability at a dismal -29, with only 28% of the general public holding a positive view of the Boy Who Cried £350m.

Nor is Johnson giving the electorate any signs that they should trust him. Just look at his conduct as one of Theresa May's senior team: a catalogue of veiled threats and off-the-record briefings by accomplices.

In October he told plotters against the prime minister to "put up, shut up and get off the stage" and claimed to be 'fed up to the back teeth' of 'so-called allies' briefing against her. Yet three months later, here we are again: being informed in advance by 'allies of the foreign secretary' that he will 'seize the floor' and 'will not relent' until she gives in to his demand, presumably to be funded by moonbeams and unicorns.

It would save a lot of bother if all Cabinet business could be transacted this way in the future and we could read sneak previews of the action in the manner of TV Quick spoilers about future episodes of Coronation Street. Friends of Boris could let slip that at next Wednesday's meeting he intended to quote Cicero, Gove supporters could divulge that he planned to skip into the Cabinet room chanting 'hullo trees, hullo flowers' like Fotherington-Thomas in Back To Skool, May allies could reveal that she was ready to look awkward and mouth a couple of catchphrases, sources close to Philip Hammond, the Sergeant Wilson/Uncle Arthur of Brexit, could disclose that he was going to tell them all to line up and stop being silly.

Johnson correctly assumes that after a botched reshuffle and an unconvincing response to the Carillion collapse, May is once again weak and wobbly. Yet he is probably incorrect if he believes the public will support any attempt of his to tip her over. The prime minister remains mystifyingly relatively popular in the country - the Conservatives are level or only a point behind Labour in most recent polls and, when voters are asked who they trust most, leads Jeremy Corbyn on several of the key issues: the economy, Brexit, immigration, security. She leads Johnson himself on favourability by 38 points.

There is little in Johnson's record to suggest he would do any better: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in jail, London's illegal water cannon remain unfired, the Thames estuary airport remains unbuilt after a wasted £5.2m on a feasibility study. He proposes a 35km bridge across the Channel after failing to build a 366m bridge across the Thames, a disaster which cost London taxpayers £52m.

No doubt allies of the foreign secretary will say that he is like the unpopular football manager who suddenly learns to walk on water and opens the next day's paper to read the headline 'Unpopular football manager cannot swim'. The will say that his concern for the NHS is genuine, that he is reacting to a real crisis in the health service and to Cabinet gridlock by making a principled stand. This could even be true. But few will believe it.

As a classics scholar, Boris should appreciate that he is now locked in a Promethean cycle of eternal punishment for his transgressions. Whatever he says, whatever he does, in the public mind Boris Johnson will be bound to his big red bus, with its false promise emblazoned for all to see, forever and ever.

And he's just going to have to shut up and get on with it.

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