Discuss Brexit, and I’ll bet you a euro to a cent that sooner or later someone will mention Vote Leave’s bus which claimed post-Brexit we’d have an extra £350 million per week which could be spent on our NHS. Boris Johnson has repeated the phrase again, and reignited the whole row. Thanks a million, Boris. Or three hundred and fifty million, I suppose. I’m pro-Brexit, naturally, but I don’t have a dog in the fight defending Vote Leave: I always put the figure in context as a gross one, and explained that the rebate and EU funding should be taken off. And to be fair to Vote Leave, they did put that figure into context elsewhere in their spending plans – but they weren’t as widely circulated.
The Vote Leave figure is widely criticised (and up to a point, rightly so) – but I recall George Osborne’s predictions (23/05/16) that a vote for Brexit would lower GDP and cost 800,000 jobs by 2018. In fact, GDP has grown and unemployment is at its lowest level since 1975. When it comes to lies told in the referendum campaign, Remain certainly have a few whoppers of their own. The EU Council President said Brexit could end ‘Western political civilisation’ and David Cameron threatened that Brexit could lead to war in Europe. When continuity Remainers criticise the £350 million per week figure, they develop an instant selective amnesia: Biblical phrases about hypocrisy, and taking the plank out of your own eye before complaining about the speck in someone else’s, spring to mind.
But what actually is the truth over £350 million per week? The picture fluctuates from year to year, with changes to each economy, the EU budget, and exchange rates. No figure will ever be perfect. The latest accurate data available is the Pink Book 2016 produced by the Office of National Statistics; the most impeccable source because it looks at what’s actually been paid in the past, not estimates or projections in the future. It puts the EU contribution for the previous year at £19.593 billion (gross), which is roughly £376 million per week.
Out of that, though, the UK gets the famous ‘rebate’ (technically, Fontainebleau abatement) won by Thatcher: a recognition that the way the EU budget is calculated leaves the UK out of pocket. Our £4.913 billion rebate comes to around £94 million per week. Think of that as being instant cashback. Leave the EU, and we can’t spend that money because we lose the cashback.
Out of that, the EU gives us some of our own money back in ‘EU funding’. We’ve paid for it; indeed, some £9.24 billion is shown as credited to the UK’s account (but nearly £5 billion of that is the rebate we’ve already accounted for).
We’re almost done, I promise! The EU does, however, give some money directly to UK businesses et al – bypassing the UK account altogether. So, cross-referencing with the Commission’s own figures and applying the average pound-euro exchange rate from 2015, we get a figure of about £102 million per week for EU money coming back to the UK.
So take a deep breath, and the picture for 2015 is actually very simple: we paid £376 million a week, which became £282 million a week after cashback. After all the ‘benefits’ of EU funding, there was £180 million left. Personally, I’d have preferred Vote Leave to just stick £180 million per week on the side of the bus. It wouldn’t have altered the referendum result in the slightest, and we wouldn’t be still having this discussion 15 months after the referendum. But what’s done is done; as the tart-tongued Lady Olenna Tyrell famously said in Game of Thrones “Once the cow’s been milked, there’s no squirting the milk back up her udder so here we are”.
There’s a sting in the tail though. Whilst I’d have preferred a figure of £180 million per week, the £282 million per week ‘post-cashback’ figure is easily defended if put into context. And the Office for Budget Responsibility projects that figure will rise to £335 million per week by the end of this Parliament.
Would I have made the same claim as Vote Leave, in the same way? Would I have repeated it, as Boris Johnson did? No. Is it absolutely 100% watertight? No.
But on a dishonesty scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is honest Abe’s ‘I cannot tell a lie’ and 10 is David Cameron’s threat that Brexit could lead to war, I’d rate the Boris Johnson claim as somewhere around a 3.