Brexit Chaos: Boris Brings Back Dead Promises
On Friday evening, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, published a Brexit article in The Telegraph triggering commentary and criticism in Conservative circles and at Westminster. Downing Street refused to take sides between Boris Johnson and his detractors, particularly Sir David Norgrove, and, instead, advised anyone who is interested in the actual figures to go online “and have a look at them.”
His article titled “My vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit,” adopts an optimistic tone, seeking to reanimate last year’s energy and desire for Brexit. Most frustratingly, it brings back from the dead those Brexiteer promises of taking back control and particularly, the pledge that the UK would take back £350m a week to use for the NHS. He also argues that Britain should only pay “what is due” and nothing for accessing the single market: “We would not expect to pay for access to their markets any more than they would expect to pay for access to ours.”
This is what Johnson wrote in his article: “And yes – once we have settled our accounts, 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, provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology.”
The claim that the UK sends the EU £350m a week, and which was made by Brexiteers before the UK Referendum last June, is wrong. This is because in 1985, Margaret Thatcher negotiated a UK rebate which has since then reduced the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. The rebate is removed before the UK pays any amount into the EU budget. For example, in 2014, the UK sent £276m a week to Brussels and in 2016, £252m. In addition, the UK receives less than half the sum back to spent on agriculture, regional aid, community projects, or international aid. The promise that the money will be used for the NHS is misleading, because this would mean cutting funds that would otherwise go for funding agriculture, regional aid and research. As the Guardian points out, such a claim also assumes that “the UK economy will not be adversely affected by Brexit, which many economists doubt.”
Of course, Boris’ old trusted friends came to his rescue. The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove and former Ukip leader, Nigel Farage—you guessed correctly—celebrated Boris’ upbeat commentary. Farage tweeted that he was “cheered up” by BoJo’s vision and that “Someone in government is finally being positive about what we voted for.” Gove explained on Twitter: “In the debate on EU contributions it’s important people look at what Boris actually wrote in his Telegraph article – not headlines. Debate should be forward looking on how to make most of life outside EU – not refighting referendum.” The headline of the Telegraph article was nothing else but Boris’ reliving the past: “Boris: Yes, we will take £350m back for the NHS.”
Sir David Norgrove’s Letter
The head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, wrote in his letter to the Foreign Secretary that his repetition of the £350m figure was “a clear misuse of official statistics.” He was “surprised and disappointed” that Boris used this Brexiteer promise again, for the simple fact that, as he reminded him, it “confuses gross and net contributions. It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including for example for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics.” Johnson, replied to Norgrove by reformulating his promise: “This is a complete misrepresentation of what I said and I would like you to withdraw it. I in fact said: ‘Once we have settled our accounts we will take back control of roughly £350m 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.’”
Two Tories, George Freeman and Tobias Ellwood, accused Boris for spreading chaos and empty promises. Freeman told the Westminster Hour that he disagreed with Boris’ £350m a week for the NHS: “Personally I think the £350 million figure is just far too early to be able to make wild promises about what exactly is going to be coming out of the Brexit negotiations ... It’s not a figure I would have repeated, and he’s not the health secretary and it needs to be negotiated.” Ellwood tweeted: “PARTY DISCORD: Think many would agree: We are not witnessing our finest hour-at a testing time when poise, purpose and unity are called for.”
Defenders of the Faith
Others found no fault in Johnson’s positivity and generous promises. Pro-Brexiteer John Redwood defended Johnson’s claim of the £350m figure on the Today programme and said that the Treasury was trying to change the government’s Brexit policy.
Another pro-Brexit supporter, Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, said that Johnson has made Theresa May “stronger” with his positivity. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, he wrote:
“Needless to say, Boris’ critics, a small but noisy group, see this as a leadership bid, but in truth it helps the Government and boosts Mrs May. As the foreign secretary he is quite reasonably setting out an enthusiastic case for Britain’s future position in the world. That is what he ought to do; it is part of his job. He is loyally putting forward Government policy as outlined by the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House speech, and is doing so with panache to explain why this approach will benefit the nation. Not for Boris snide anonymous briefings allegedly by friends; instead a double page spread in the Daily Telegraph promoting the cause of conservatism in the nation.”
Rees-Mogg didn’t, however, support the £350m figure. Instead, he defended Boris by saying that he wanted to deliver on the promise of funding of the NHS “by using the money we will save by leaving the EU, £10bn, or nearly £200m a week.”
BBC’s political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, in an article today, has summed up the debate as follows: “Well, it hardly feels like smooth government now, with the foreign secretary in a verbal punch-up with one of the country's most senior civil servants, other cabinet ministers telling him to pipe down publicly, and the carefully planned build-up to a very significant political speech at the end of the week now a circus.”
Kuenssberg confided that one of Boris Johnson's colleagues once told her that "the thing you have to understand about him, is that he wants to be loved." But is that really what Boris is doing here?
According to George Osbourne’s editorial in the Evening Standard, Boris wrote his article in order to stop the PM using her Florence speech this Friday to offer a softer vision of Brexit, including her proposal for paying for a transition deal. The article laughs at Boris’ “reputation for being economical with the truth,” and explains that if May makes a “sensible offer of money” during her Florence speech, Johnson will be “humiliated,” and he “faces the kind of fatal blow the Medicis would have been familiar with.” Instead, Boris preferred “the long newspaper column” as his “weapon of choice.”
As it happens, Boris’ manoeuvres reveal the big chasm within the Conservative party, between hard and soft Brexiteers, or to put it more blatantly, between those like Johnson who don’t really want a deal, and politicians like May who do want to move on and find a viable Brexit solution.