Ferrets in a sack: Boris, Remain and £350m a week

Remain and Leave arguing via the media? A recipe for being misinformed.

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So, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is in hot water for apparently "reviving" the discredited Brexit referendum claim of "£350m extra a week for the NHS".

I think it is pretty clear that the real aim of re-litigating £350m/NHS is to discredit Boris and by extension the re-energised positive vision of Brexit he set out in his Telegraph column. And just like in the referendum, the discussion is imprecise, lacks context, and often doesn’t make any logical sense.

Anyway, I’ll take the bait and give you my views.


Boris Johnson's telegraph column was massively misrepresented.

This is ironic since it was supposed to be a "fact check" by the non political head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove. What Boris actually said: "we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week. It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS". "Control" and a "lot" are a bit vague to be sure (too vague for my liking), but are still consistent with the message in the referendum campaign. And certainly do not equal a claim that £350m would be available for "extra spending”, which along with being a liar, is what he was accused of.

Norgrove should apologise, or resign. 

After Boris called up his accuser personally, Sir David Norgrove apparently admitted he didn’t even know what the UK’s EU rebate figure was (what. on. earth), and that he was actually worried about misleading “BBC headlines”, rather than specific words/phases in the Telegraph column. This suggests he hadn’t even read the column properly before shooting off a public letter attacking the Foreign Secretary. Unprofessional and wrong - he should apologise. And next time, write to the BBC if that is who he has a problem with.

£350m/NHS was simultaneously a total lie that swung the whole vote and irrelevant as the money was "tiny" anyway in comparison to the UK’s GDP, or overall NHS spending

Remember that one during the referendum? Or the time The Guardian editorialised that the £350m claim was like "mainly male, pub bores", taking over a debate? Get this: all Coalition government austerity combined was £133m a week between 2010-2015 (IFS, Table 7.2). Yet, many of the same people that dismissed much larger UK EU contributions as relatively "tiny" thought reversing smaller "crippling, brutal" austerity was the most crucial economic and social justice issue of our lifetimes. Which is it folks?

Why would £200m not have done the same job as £350m?

It was apparently crucial that it was £350m/NHS. Using the precise net contribution figures of £261m (minus rebate) or £206m (minus rebate & EU spending in UK) for 2015-2016 (HM Treasury, Table 3.C), somehow wouldn’t have made a dent. Q: why wouldn’t a majority of the British public have still said, “wow, it’s still £206m-£261m extra a week for the NHS? Sign me up!”?

£350m/NHS attacks do have a point

The Vote Leave campaign manager (Dominic Cummings) admitted post-referendum he was intentionally misleading about the £350m figure and whether it was gross or net, or "sent" to the EU - in order to "provoke people into argument”. This also ended up on various posters that people like Boris did campaign in front of (you’ll see these used a debunk slam dunk). Yes, that was wrong. But at least he owned up on Vote Leave’s behalf. Have others who lied or misled during the referendum? David "I'm just gonna imply World War III" Cameron? Donald "Brexit could destroy western civilisation" Tusk? If we’ve got a standard for honesty, lets hold everyone to it.

Vote Leave's actual offer was £100m a week

Despite Cumming's admission, there is a Vote Leave statement about extra money for the NHS on the record. It was made at the height of the referendum campaign in early June. In it, Boris, Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart actually promised £100m extra a week, not £350m:

After we Vote Leave on 23 June, the Government should use some of the billions saved from leaving the EU to give at least a £100 million per week cash transfusion to the NHS
— Statement by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart on NHS funding, Vote Leave, 3 June 2016

This statement was widely reported at the time in major papers and social media, but now seems to have been dumped into the memory hole. Hilariously, the Huffington Post even claimed that when Vote Leave figures like Michael Gove simply repeat the £100m figure from this on the record statement, that this is somehow backsliding! I personally don’t think the British public are so stupid they can't look at the Vote Leave website or pick up a newspaper to see what the Vote Leave offer is.

We'd have paid £350m within a few years anyway

The Treasury estimates that had we not voted for Brexit, by 2021-2022, the UK’s gross contribution to the EU would be £22bn, or £427m a week (in cash terms; Table 3.D). The net contribution minus rebate would be £17.4bn or £334m a week. Remainers are hardly on solid ground wanting to keep on paying £334m, whilst criticising £350m/NHS.

The Tories offered the NHS more than Vote Leave and Labour at the 2017 election

The Conservative government of which Boris is a part of was elected on a manifesto promising an extra £8bn for the NHS, or £153m extra a week in real terms (see p.66). This is even more money than Labour were offering (see p.69; outbidding the money printing factory is a real achievement) and it is £53m a week more than Vote Leave officially offered.


Summary

How is it possible that during this entire debate almost nobody is pointing out that under the Conservatives, the NHS is going to get even more extra money than Vote Leave and Corbyn’s Labour offered? And not only is this still not enough, those same Conservatives apparently remain wicked NHS destroyers?

Oh, I remember: some people lost a vote, and much of the media still absolutely sucks on this issue.


For the purposes of this brief post, I'm not getting into the fact that the EU controls but returns some of the money as spending in the UK, or that we count some EU contributions as part of our foreign aid 0.7% target. This can be complex enough!