Everything wrong with Boris Johnson’s claim that £350m Brexit promise was “too low”

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The notorious pledge – its place on the side of the Vote Leave battle bus now a symbol of the misleading campaign – of £350m extra a week for the NHS was dropped even by the most ardent Brexiteers in the aftermath of the EU referendum.

Just a few hours after the result, Nigel Farage himself was on Good Morning Britain, merrily calling the claim “a mistake”. Change Britain, the Vote Leave campaign’s successor group, abandoned the promise in September last year.

The figure is inaccurate, because it doesn’t account for the UK’s rebate, which is removed before it sends any money to Brussels.

After the rebate, the money it paid the EU in 2014 was £276m per week – not the £350m claimed – and that money is sent back to Britain for farming subsidies, underdeveloped regions, science and universities, etc. On some projects, this funding is matched by private investors.

So we wouldn’t be getting £350m or £276m a week extra by leaving.

The only person who still seems dead-set on delivering this impossible promise is the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. In a column for the Telegraph last September, he repeated the false claim that Brexit will result in £350m a week for the NHS.

“Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week,” he wrote. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

And today he’s gone one better – saying the pledge of £350m a week was “grossly underestimated”, claiming that leaving the EU would actually free up £438m for the health service.

“There was an error on the side of the bus,” he told the Guardian. “We grossly underestimated the sum over which we would be able to take back control.”

Johnson’s argument is that in 2017-18, Britain’s contribution to the EU was higher – at £362m a week, and would rise annually to £438m by 2020-21 (when the UK is supposed to leave for good, after a transition period).

This doesn’t work for the reasons the £350m figure was misleading, but also because the UK’s contributions to the EU have been rising since the referendum campaign in 2016, partly because of Brexit: sterling is weaker against the euro. It looks like the cost of Brexit continues to cost Brexiteers their promises.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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