The £350 million wasn’t a lie — here’s why

‘Was the £350 million claim really a lie? Has our probable future Prime Minister indulged in tabloid-level mendacity?’

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“Anyone with a basic knowledge of politics and arithmetic knows that the claim, ‘We send £350 million a week to the EU’ was incorrect,” according to John Rentoul, the chief political commentator for the Independent, in an article on May 29. He was referring to the then looming court action against Boris Johnson, brought by businessman Marcus Ball. Like many Remainers in the Brexit debate, Ball wanted to register a protest against Johnson’s use of the £350 million figure in the pre-referendum exchanges. To quote from his statement to Westminster magistrates’ court last month, Ball believed not just that the figure was a lie, but that its propagation in the run-up to June 23, 2016 was “criminal misconduct in public life”.

Although the £350 million was estimated not by Boris himself, but by the Vote Leave campaign team under Matthew Elliott, the former Mayor of London had had no qualms about using it. In the eyes of Marcus Ball and some other extreme Remainers, he had thereby laid himself open to legal rebuke, and even potentially a fine and imprisonment. But on June 7 two High Court judges quashed Ball’s action. They agreed with Johnson’s barrister that appearing in front of a bus with a contentious slogan formed “no part of Johnson’s official duties” and so could not be misconduct in public office.

The sensible convention that political differences should not be settled in law courts was upheld, but perhaps it was a shame that a big and open debate about the £350 million claim was prevented. Was it really a lie? Did our probable future Prime Minister indulge in tabloid-level mendacity? And was the chief political commentator of the Independent right to assert that “anyone with a basic knowledge of politics and arithmetic” can pontificate on the subject? Indeed, did Rentoul himself know what he was talking about?

In 1980 the government agreed to present an annual statement on European Union finances and the UK’s contribution to it. Every year since then a White Paper has been published with a mass of relevant statistics. The most recent, the 38th in the series, came out on June 5; it was ignored by the media, including the Independent. The table below presents some of the key numbers, taken from the vital Table 3.A of the document.

The source of the £350-million-a-week claim is immediately revealed. It is the penultimate line in the table relating to the UK’s gross contribution. The pertinent numbers for the debate in 2016 were those for 2014 and 2015, which are slightly above £350 million. As far as the gross contribution was concerned, Boris and the Leavers were not being in any way dishonest or misleading.

The Remainers might retaliate by insisting that the gross contribution is far from being the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For them the rebate—which dates back to 1984 negotiations led on the British side by Margaret Thatcher—should not appear in the discussion at all. The White Paper notes that, “The UK’s gross payments are automatically corrected to account for the rebate, meaning the UK only pays the post-rebate amount.” If the rebate is deducted, the weekly figure for the worst year—2015—becomes £282 million, still a huge number, but well beneath £350 million.

When the Remainers further argue that substantial sums come back to the UK, to be spent in this country, the Leave side appears to be on the defensive. When the returned sums, shown in the table as “public sector receipts”, are also taken into account, the UK’s net contribution drops to less than £10 billion a year in every year except 2015, when it was £10,763 million or £207 million a week. In fact, in the last two years (2017 and 2018) the net weekly contribution has been just under £175 million, a little less than half the £350 million touted by the Leavers. Is this not a decisive rebuttal of the Vote Leave calculation? And is not Boris guilty as charged?

The issue turns on the interpretation of the two kinds of payment made back to the UK, to repeat, the rebate and the so-called “public sector receipts”. On the first, one point should hardly be controversial. If the referendum result had been that the UK decided to stay in the EU, it is certain that the other EU member states would have done their damnedest to end the rebate once and for all. The rebate is resented across the EU as a relic of Thatcherite obstinacy; it still has no legitimacy in the arcane treaty formulas which determine the contributions and entitlements of member states. A vote to stay in the EU would have been seen by the Commission and the 27 other member states as a commitment to stay in for ever, and a licence to bully the UK. The rebate would have been for the chop.

The notion of “public sector receipts”—to use the words in the White Paper—must also be viewed critically. The White Paper phrase might give the impression that money is sent back to a UK public sector account and then spent by our civil servants, on behalf of UK government departments headed by politicians who are accountable to Parliament. That is not the position. The expenditure is controlled not by the British government, but by the EU bureaucracy in accordance with EU priorities. Whether one regards the money as “being sent to Brussels for EU purposes” or “as being sent to Brussels for dispersal to member states, including the UK, in line with the treaties” is a matter of opinion.

Surely crucial is the effectiveness of the kinds of expenditure that are under EU control. Perhaps the UK sees little benefit from such expenditure. If so, the gross contribution rather than the net would be the better measure of the cost of EU membership. As it happens, a long-running theme of UK membership of the EU (and before that, the European Economic Community, or “Common Market”) is that the EU is inefficient and wasteful when it spends money. Governments of all parties have urged that spending responsibility be transferred back to the UK in the two most affected areas, regional support and farming.

Most of the UK is not eligible for EU regional spending, because incomes per head are too high. In England only Cornwall and the Scilly Isles have received large amounts of EU money in recent years. A 2012 White Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government remarked, after an inquiry by British officials, that EU expenditure in these areas could not be said to have had “a significant impact”. In fact, “It is not even possible to conclude that [the previous spending round, that for 2000—2006] had done so, because of the lack of robust evidence.”   

The situation is much the same for farming. Before the UK joined the Common Market in 1973, it was widely accepted that British agriculture—exposed to world prices and market forces, even if it was heavily subsidised—was the most productive in Europe. Since then various forms of intervention, mostly from the EU, have undermined the efficiency of land use and responsiveness to market forces. In 1988 the EEC introduced set-aside payments, in which farmers received money for not producing grain on a proportion of their land. In other words, they were being paid to do nothing. Set-aside ended in 2005, to be replaced by money for “agri-environment schemes”. According to the propaganda, bio-diversity and “rural development” (whatever that is) have benefited, and no doubt the countryside is prettier and better to some degree. The fact remains that hundreds of millions of pounds are being paid out to a sectional interest, with the deliberate purpose that this sectional interest should not produce anything.

It cannot be escaped that EU-directed expenditure on agriculture and regional aid is so poorly organised that its value to the UK is much less than the apparent sums (of between £3.5 and £4 billion a year) imply. Hardly anyone disputes that if farming policy were repatriated and the sector was given more freedom and opportunity to use its resources properly, a substantial increase in farm output would be feasible. British taxpayers are indeed “sending money to Brussels”, so that EU officials can be sloppy and ineffective in spending it in the UK.

We come back to our initial question. Suppose that the High Court had decided not to quash the summons for Johnson to defend the £350 million figure. According to Ball’s barrister, “There is ample evidence that Johnson did know it was a false and misleading figure.” Given that the rebate would have evaporated if we had voted to stay in, and given that a high proportion of the EU-controlled regional aid and farming expenditure is squandered, the Leavers surely can make a case that the gross contribution is a better guide to the direct fiscal cost of EU membership than the net contribution. Bluntly, Johnson could not have “known” that it was “a false and misleading figure” because it was not false and misleading, except to the bigots who write for the Europhile mainstream media.

Crucially, the gross contribution in 2015—the year just before the 2016 referendum—was £19,560 million or £376 million a week. Moreover, the gross contribution had risen with hardly any interruption at a compound annual rate of more than 6 per cent a year from £12,653 million in 2008. Objective participants in the political debate—indeed, anyone who shared with John Rentoul “a basic knowledge of politics and arithmetic”—might sensibly extrapolate yet higher figures than £19,560 million for 2016, 2017 and so on. (They would have been wrong to do so, as 2015 was the peak. Cynics might suggest that it was the peak precisely because the UK’s membership of the EU was being debated more actively, and with increasing hostility, at just that time.)

A celebrated jousting match in the 1986 Australian Spycatcher trial involved the UK Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong. To recall,

Lawyer: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?

Armstrong: A lie is a straight untruth.

Lawyer: What is a misleading impression—a sort of bent untruth?

Armstrong: As one person said, it is perhaps being “economical with the truth”.

Boris Johnson may have his faults, but by common consent he is a brilliant wordsmith. It would have been a joy if, in the court room, he could have found a new phraseology to define the acceptable boundaries of falsehood and truth in political debate. (Burke seems to have been the first to propose the notion of “an economy of truth”.) At any rate, the £350-million-a-week claim was not a lie. Arguably, it was an exaggeration, even a naughty one. But in no way was it “a straight untruth”. To equate borderline rhetorical transgressions of this sort with criminal misconduct would have been madness, and for once the High Court has ensured that sanity prevails.