Slanging match over Boris EU sums continues

Rallying cry: The bus says the UK “sends” the EU £350m - a phrase Johnson avoided. © Getty

Is the foreign secretary’s claim that the UK will “take back control of £350m per week” true? The UK’s stats watchdog says it is a “clear misuse of statistics”. Johnson insists he is right.

Boris Johnson launched a grenade through the Conservative Party this weekend, writing a 4,000 word article for The Telegraph outlining his vision for “a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit”. Many see the article as a challenge to Theresa May and a bid to lead the country.

Yesterday Theresa May refused to bow to one of his key demands -- to divert EU funds to the NHS after Brexit. And she insisted that she has not lost control of her cabinet.

One paragraph in particular has caused a furore.

“And yes – 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.”

That statistic is a near-repeat of a claim made by the Leave campaign before the vote -- a claim that summed up the perception among many that the referendum campaign was dishonest.

But it is not as simple as that. According to the BBC’s Reality Check, £350m per week is indeed “an approximate sum for the UK's gross contribution to the EU”.

However, the figure would be lower if it accounted for Britain’s “rebate” which is never sent to the EU in the first place and if it accounted for any EU money spent in Britain.

Many have doubted whether the NHS really will see a huge post-Brexit cash injection, but Johnson and Vote Leave have been careful to frame the idea as a mere suggestion rather than a direct policy promise, using terms like “let’s” and “it would be a fine thing”.

Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, defends the statistic using this analogy: when discussing their salary, a person talks about the money they receive before some is taken away in taxation. That is to say, they use the gross figure, not the net figure.

In response to the article, Sir David Norgrove of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to Johnson saying he was “disappointed” calling it “a clear misuse of official statistics”.

Johnson hit back, saying the letter was a “wilful distortion of the text of my article”.

Numbers game

“Boris’s claim is correct,” say some. And it does not, as Norgrove says, confuse the gross and net payments. The paragraph is very carefully and clearly worded, allowing for elbow room with its use of “roughly”. He is also correct to say that we will “take back control” of that money, as we will not have to negotiate it back.

“This is dishonesty dressed up as pedantic truths,” reply others. The net figure is what matters, and the Leave campaign have never bothered to explicitly distinguish between the two. The UK net contribution to the EU is roughly £200m every week. That is an enormous difference, and it is shameful that a major politician is peddling this distortion.

You Decide

  1. Look at Boris Johnson’s claim very closely. Is it correct?
  2. Would Boris Johnson be a good prime minister?

Activities

  1. Class debate: “This house believes that politicians should be prosecuted for lying.”
  2. Find a recent statistic quoted by a leading politician. Fact-check it, and write a summary of how true it is, and whether it is misleading.

Some People Say...

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

George Orwell

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Boris Johnson has written a long article outlining his vision for Brexit. In it, he repeated the £350m figure which the Vote Leave campaign controversially claimed that Britain “sends to the EU every week”. This claim has been debated for over a year and a half. We know that it is about the right total for the UK’s “gross contributions” to the EU, but it ignores the money spent in the EU and the money Britain gets back in a rebate.
What do we not know?
Whether the article will aid in Boris Johnson’s goal to become prime minister. He has been accused of “back-seat driving” by the home secretary, Amber Rudd, but Johnson will be hoping that he can gain the support of the Conservative Party membership, which is heavily in favour of Brexit.

Word Watch

The Telegraph
Johnson was once the paper’s Brussels correspondent, reporting on EU matters, before becoming the paper’s assistant editor.
NHS
Vote Leave were criticised for using the NHS logo on their bus and campaign literature.
Rebate
The rebate was first negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. It is a percentage discount from the country’s contribution and comes up for discussion every seven years when the EU long-term budget is negotiated by the 28 leaders.
Dominic Cummings
Cummings, who advised Michael Gove in the Department for Education before running Vote Leave, has been very critical of the government’s Brexit strategy, especially the early triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Cummings believes that Leave could not have won without pushing the “£350m” line.

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