The most regular attack-line used against leading Brexiteers is that they misled the public over how much money could be used to fund the NHS if Britain left the EU. Throughout the referendum campaign, Vote Leave said that we send £350 million a week to Brussels – a gross figure, applied before a rebate etc. But no one knew the real 2016 figure because the data is compiled in arrears. Only today do we have the data, published by the Office for National Statistics. Its figures show…
- Payment to Brussels, net of rebate and money returned to the UK: £9.4 billion a year, or £181 million a week.
- Payment to Brussels, net of rebate: £13.9 billion a year, or £267 million a week.
- Gross payment to Brussels: £18.9 billion a year, or £363 million a week.
As far as the average voter is concerned, £181 million and £350 million both sound like a lot of money. Either would get the point across, with the same force. So why did Boris use the gross figure, when the convention is to use the net figure? Simple: it drives the other side quite loopy. They threaten to sue. And as they explode with anger, the discussion turns to how much of British money is spent to the EU – a conversation subject that suits Brexiteers. This tactic worked so effectively in the referendum because their opponents rose to the bait every time.
Was the £350m figure misleading? Yes, if it was spoken of as the net figure. Would the lower figure have been fairer, and got the point across just as well? Of course. But it would not have been as effective as a campaigning tool, because it would have generated less fuss.
In elections, politicians frequently use valid-but-misleading figures, seeing if the other side will make a fuss and take the bait. It’s seen as rough and tumble of democracy: if one side misleads, the other side can call them liars and voters decide. In 2005, Gordon Brown falsely accused the Tories of planning to ‘cut’ £35 billion a year from services. Here’s the poster.A young Nick Robinson was at the poster launch, for ITV. and made his name by pointing out that this is a lie (rather than an exaggeration). The Tories were planning to increase spending, just not by as much as Labour. Brown thought that, given he thought he’d outspend the Tories by £35bn, he could then say they’d cut. To compound the lie, Labour said this was “the equivalent of sacking every nurse, every teacher and every doctor’ in the country. As Robinson said: “you can’t cut money that hasn’t been spent”. But this is an election: a more competent Tory party could have exposed the lie. Interestingly, Blair used the Vote Leave logic: a row over a figure is good for hype. Blair later told Robinson that he was glad about the fuss, as it kept attention on the subject of Tory cuts.
No one accused Labour of winning that election due to that £35 billion figure, in the way that Vote Leave’s vanquished rivals bang on about the £350 million now. No one wrote ‘post truth’ books after that election. No one threatened to sue. It was a more grown-up age.
Is it valid to use a gross figure, the £350m figure, for EU payments in public debate? Of course. The UK is mandated to send that cash over: whether or not the rebate is applied at source is semantic. What happens is that we spend X, and our rebate is Y – giving us a net Z. But to say that we spend Z – ie, just give the net figure – would also be misleading as it disguises an important truth.
The UK does not control that ‘rebate’. It comes in forms of expenditure (farms, etc) that the UK cannot control. If you pay a guy £10 a week and he buys you £8 of things he thinks you need every week, how much are you paying him? £10 or £2? That’s what this boils down to. Both gross and net figures are valid. And while UK payments to the EU are obligatory, the rebate is a discretionary grant – as George Osborne once admitted. So to talk about the net figure can be misleading. Any single sentence summary of this situation will not be the whole story. As is so often true in politics.
Gross figures are used all the time. Staff salaries are paid net of tax, yet everyone refers to their gross pay. And what about taxation? That is routinely referred to in gross terms: ie, what we pay in. The lower-paid half of the country gets all of its money back (and more) in public services. So their net contribution is negative (and rightly so). But people still talk about the sum that’s taken from them. Those who advocate lower taxes emphasise – as Boris does – control. That people spend their own money better on themselves than the government does on their behalf. So the gross figure is, obviously, the most relevant.
If the emphasis is on control – as the Vote Leave campaign was – then the gross figure matters arguably more than the net figure.
Boris Johnson used a trick, but a valid trick. Given potency by the other side’s behaviour. Under pressure, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority himself belatedly weighed in on the debate a few weeks ago, saying Boris was wrong to quote this figure. In his opinion. But it’s only one opinion: he is not saying that the figure was factually wrong.
But you can say that we now know it was factually wrong because the real gross figure is £363 million a week. Let’s see if Boris can be made to offer an apology.