An extraordinary war of words between Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the UK’s statistics watchdog over how much money Britain sends to the EU escalated on Sunday night.
In a letter to UK Statistics Authority chief executive Sir David Norgrove, Johnson claims an article he wrote for the Daily Telegraph mapping out how Brexit would succeed has been the victim of a “wilful distortion”, and chided the statistics boss for going public with his concerns.
Sir David had accused Johnson of a “clear misuse of official statistics” after saying the UK would “take back control” of £350m a week in payments to the EU after Brexit - a much-disputed figure used by Vote Leave during last year’s referendum campaign.
Returning fire, the Foreign Secretary takes issue with Sir David’s interpretation, and suggests his letter differs markedly from the conversation they had over the headline of a BBC article - with Johnson suggesting there was less concern over his actual words.
“I suggest if the BBC coverage offends you that you write to the BBC,” Johnson writes, pointedly, before accusing Sir David of a “complete misrepresentation”.
The Telegraph front page headline on the news story based on Johnson’s editorial presented the proposition as directly as: ‘Boris: Yes, we will take back £350m from the EU for the NHS’.
People immediately pointed out this is not what he meant when the article was read in full.
But the UK Statistics Authority appears less concerned with whether the money will be spent on the NHS, and more that it fails to take into account other payments the UK receives from the EU and “confuses gross and net contributions”.
But Johnson accuses the watchdog of trying to “impute” him as his words - namely ‘taking control’ - are “very different from claiming that there would be an extra £350m available for public spending”.
The authority’s concern with making clear the difference between gross and net contributions to the EU are not addressed directly, other than to say the country would “no doubt ... continue to spend significantly on UK priorities such as agriculture and research”.
The full Johnson letter reads:
Dear Sir David,
I must say that I was surprised and disappointed by your letter of today, since it was based on what appeared to be a wilful distortion of the text of my article.
When we spoke you conceded that you were more concerned by the headline and the BBC coverage, though you accepted that I was not responsible for those. I suggest if the BBC coverage offends you that you write to the BBC.
You say that I claim that there would be £350 million that ‘might be available for extra public spending’ when we leave the EU.
This is a complete misrepresentation of what I said and I would like you to withdraw it. I in fact said : ‘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 is very different from claiming that there would be an extra £350m available for public spending and I am amazed that you should impute such a statement to me.
You claim in your defence that we would not really be taking back control of that sum, because it includes the rebate and other EU spending in this country.
But, as you accept, these sums - amounting to about half the £350 million - are spent at the discretion of the EU. We do not control them.
To give you an example: when I was Mayor of London I thought it would be a good idea if we persuaded the Commission to spend £8m on the Emirates cable car. We succeeded, and the Commissioner concerned was so delighted with the results that he said he would like to fund some more cable cars in London. I was delighted, too, and was glad to have steered some of our EU contributions back to this country. But the decision was his. Control was in the hands of the Commission, not the UK. Or do you suggest otherwise?
As for the balance of the £350 million, it of course disappears around the rest of the EU, and is spent as the EU sees fit in other countries. Once we leave the EU we will take back control of all such UK-funded spending, and, although of course I have no doubt that we will continue to spend significantly on UK priorities such as agriculture and research, that spending will be done under UK control.
As for the rebate - whose value you did not know - it only forms part of the EU’s financing arrangements with the agreement of all other EU Member States. We do not control it ourselves.
What is beyond doubt is that, upon withdrawal, we will have complete discretion over the £350m per week and that huge sums will indeed will be available for public spending on priorities such as the NHS. I believe that would be a fine thing.
If you had any concerns about my article, it would of course have been open to you to address the points with me in private rather than in this way in a public letter. As it is, if you seriously disagree with any of the above, I look forward to hearing your reasoning.
Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs
Labour MP Chuka Umunna MP, a supporter of anti-Brexit group Open Britain, said: “Yet again Boris’ outright lying has been exposed by Britain’s statistics watchdog. The £350m figure was simply wrong during the referendum campaign, and it’s wrong now.
“Boris’ hard Brexit plans will mean less money for our NHS, not more. The IFS are forecasting a £58bn hole in the public finances as a direct result of Brexit, which will be paid for in higher taxes and lower NHS spending.
“Boris’ compulsive lying means he has lost the right to be heard on Brexit. He should give his leadership ambitions a rest and apologise for his continual use of dodgy statistics.”
The former chair of the UK Stats Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnot, criticised Vote Leave’s use of the £350million figure during the 2016 referendum campaign.