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. 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. 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 attracted less attention. In elections, politicians frequently use valid-but-misleading figures, and it’s seen as rough and tumble of the debate. In 2005, Gordon Brown falsely accused the Tories of planning to ‘cut’ £35 billion a year from services – but they were planning to increase spending, just not by as much as Labour. But 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. It was a more rational age.
Is it valid to use a gross figure for EU payments in public debate? Of course. The UK does not control how the EU spends its money in the UK: we would (and will) cash on different priorities. Plus, as George Osborne admitted, our rebate is a discretionary grant from the EU. And most salaries are paid net of tax, yet everyone refers to their gross figure. It was a trick, but a valid trick. Given potency by the other side’s behaviour.
And yet 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. It now turns out that he’s right: the real gross figure is £363 million a week. Mr S hopes the Foreign Secretary will now issue a correction.