With the EU referendum campaign starting in earnest, the Vote Leave campaign promised us that today would be the day their faltering campaign really kicked off. And what better way to do it than by sending their most recognisable figure, Boris Johnson, on a bus tour of the South West?
To the Tory anti-Europeans in Vote Leave HQ, it must have seemed like a great idea on paper. But instead, the blonde bombshell has delivered a day of bumbling, bluster, and blunders which only highlights the weakness of the case for pulling out of the world's largest Single Market.
Things started going wrong for Vote Leave before Boris had even disembarked for his first photo op, in Cornwall. His bright red Vote Leave bus turned out to be manufactured in Germany and Poland by Neoplan, a German company. Research by the Stronger In campaign quickly revealed that, if we left the EU and traded with it under World Trade Organisation rules, as Boris Johnson advocated only this morning, European buses would suddenly face a 13% import tariff. This would have made the bus over £56,000 more expensive - small beer for the deep-pocketed Leave campaign, but a punishing extra cost for small UK coach operators.
On the bus was blazoned the slogan: "We send the EU £350million a week. Let's fund our NHS instead." Unfortunately, Vote Leave are telling porky pies. The UK Statistics authority has twice
called the figure "misleading", and called on Vote Leave to stop using it. The well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies have called it inaccurate. As Boris would find out later, EU funding has created jobs and growth across Britain, and especially in the South West.
The idea that the likes of Boris would choose to spend money on the NHS in any case is laughable. In the past, Boris has called for NHS charges, while other of his mates in the Leave campaign have called for further cuts and privatisations. As former health secretaries and chiefs of NHS England, not to mention hundreds of doctors and medical researchers have said, our NHS is stronger in the EU.
Treasury research shows that the economic damage a vote to leave the EU would cause would open up a £36billion black hole in public spending, leaving less money to spend on our NHS.
It was all going wrong for Boris, and yet he hadn't even got out of his German bus yet. But worse was to come. As the door opened, Boris leaned out brandishing a Cornish pasty above his head. Clearly no-one had told him that pasties, like so many iconic British foodstuffs, are protected from imitation by the EU's Protected Geographical Indication legislation. People often criticise the EU for being remote. But it is EU law, not British law, that protect Cornish pasty makers from being undercut by inferior imports.
By this point, local Tory MP Sarah Newton was already talking about Boris' "blunder bus", a phrase that took off on social media. Things were clearly not going well.
Undeterred, Boris headed off to the local St Austell Brewery, which makes the popular Tribute brand of ale. Bad luck for him, then, that the brewery turned out to be a great example of the very EU funding that Boris wants to scrap. The EU had invested £50,000 in the company to help build a new bottling line. Presumably Vote Leave expected the business to be on their side. But Boris' visit inspired the company to state that they were taking a neutral position. The wheels were very clearly coming off the blunder bus.
In one campaign visit, Boris Johnson had inadvertently managed to demonstrate how our economy is so much stronger as part of Europe. Being in the world's largest Single Market, which buys almost half our exports, boosts trade, creates jobs, and keeps prices low. Great British industries are protected from unfair competition by EU law. European funding helps small businesses grow, invest and create jobs. And putting all this at risk would make painful cuts to public services inevitable. The contrast with Gordon Brown's speech in London, a serious and patriotic argument for British membership of the EU, could not have been starker.
Perhaps realising that his visit had not been an unalloyed success, Boris unexpectedly decided to skip the next leg of the tour, in my Exeter constituency. No explanation was provided by Vote Leave.
Perhaps it was because a recent survey of Exeter businesses by our Chamber of Commerce showed more than 80% want Britain to stay in Europe and Exeter University, our biggest employer, says it would be a "disaster" if we left.
Boris' day of blunders sums up the state of the Leave campaign. They have no answer to the fact that leaving the world's largest single market would damage our economy to the tune of £4,300 a year for the average household. Jobs are more plentiful, prices are lower, and public services are stronger thanks to our membership of the EU. Leaving would be a risk we cannot afford to take.
Don't believe the blonde blunderer - vote to remain in Europe on 23 June.
Ben Bradshaw is Labour MP for Exeter and a political champion of Britain Stronger In Europe.Suggest a correction