Britain will have even more money to spend on public services than the disputed £350mn a week Brexiteers promised after the country leaves the European Union, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in an interview published yesterday.
The £350mn figure was a central and controversial part of the pro-Leave campaign’s “Take back control” message in the runup to the 2016 referendum.
Last September government statisticians accused Johnson of misusing state data by repeating it.
Britain’s theoretical gross contribution to the EU in 2016 was £18.9bn— more than £360mn per week — but this was automatically lowered to £13.9bn by a rebate arrangement that has been in place since 1984.
The government received a further £4.4bn back to spend mostly on farm subsidies and infrastructure in poorer regions. Overall, Britain’s net payment to the EU worked out at £181mn a week.
Brexit opponents say Johnson and other pro-Leave campaigners deliberately misled the public by saying £350mn a week could be spent on the state-run National Health Service (NHS), a claim emblazoned on a campaign bus, and it has become symbolic of the divisions caused by the referendum.
But in the Guardian interview Johnson said the UK’s weekly gross contribution to the EU would rise to £438mn by the time Britain left the bloc.
“There was an error on the side of the bus,” Johnson told the Guardian newspaper. “We grossly underestimated the sum over which we would be able to take back control. As and when the cash becomes available — and it won’t until we leave — the NHS should be at the very top of the list.”
Johnson has previously said the £350mn figure referred to the gross payments to the EU, rather than the net amount. It also does not take account of EU funds given directly to other British bodies such as universities.
In the last week, a number of senior Brexit campaigners such as Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), suggested there needed to be another referendum to reaffirm the 2016 result of 52%-48% in favour of leaving the EU.
They fear Prime Minister Theresa May’s approach has led to the watering down of several of their demands, including the ability to reduce immigration and to reclaim sovereignty by leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. May has ruled out another vote and Johnson also told the paper he did not think there should be another referendum.
“We’ve just had one, and I think it went pretty well but it was something that caused an awful lot of heartache and soul-searching, and everybody went through the wringer on it,” he said. “I’m not convinced that the public is absolutely gagging for another Brexit referendum.”
Meanwhile Keir Starmer has urged Labour colleagues not to “look back in grief” at the 2016 Brexit vote but instead try to fight for the best possible deal as Britain leaves the EU.
The shadow Brexit secretary told MPs that he understood why people were demanding a second referendum but said the party could not “rub out” the vote to leave.
He warned that Remain campaigners could face losing a rerun of the vote when he spoke at a session of the parliamentary Labour party on Monday in which some politicians questioned him about the leadership’s position.
Starmer tried to appease colleagues who think Labour should be much tougher in calling for the UK to stay in the single market by saying he understood there was a sense of injustice at the way the referendum played out. However, one MP present at the meeting described the comments as a “hardening of the leadership’s position rather than reaching out to concerns from across the party”.
Starmer said the frustration was that Brexit campaigners “wrote a series of things that were not true such as £350mn for the NHS”, according to the Huffington Post.
“But there are a number of obvious difficulties (with a second referendum). I don’t think we’re going to know what ‘out’ looks like at 2021 at the earliest. And therefore the only point you’ll be able to measure out is in several years’ time, but we will have exited the EU in 2019; and therefore ‘in’ is no longer an option.”
According to MPs at the meeting, Starmer said the argument went beyond the practicalities and into a more fundamental question for Labour.
“If we sit here as a party aspiring to govern, then we have got to recognise that if we spend all that time looking back in grief about what many of us didn’t want to happen, thinking how do we rub it out, then we are unable to do what we need to do which is to fight for the (final deal) that reflects what we stand for and that is right for Britain in the 21st century,” Starmer said. “It is a really important distinction: are we looking back in grief or looking forward to the challenge of the future.”
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