Boris is at it again. In his “leadership manifesto” speech in the Daily Telegraph on 16th September 2017, Boris has resurrected the £350 million claim which was proved to be demonstrably false during the Referendum campaign. (For clarity, that would be our gross EU contribution without the rebate negotiated so brilliantly by Margaret Thatcher and without the investment back into the UK of considerable EU funds). His exact words, that we can “take back control of roughly £350 million per week” could be seen as accurately describing the theoretical gross contribution (even though that amount is never paid) – but then he goes and spoils it by saying how fine it would be if “a lot of that money went on the NHS”, so clearly implying that it is a real cash amount we’d save if we left the EU. It’s not.
Why does he do it? Government ministers aren’t supposed to lie about government spending – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was impeached for doing just that. And its not as if Boris doesn’t know the underlying facts perfectly well.
Possibly, he just doesn’t hold the truth too dear. As the Independent noted on 27th June 2016: “In 1988 the young Johnson was sacked from The Times for fabricating a quote in an article, and in 2004 he was “relieved of his duties” as shadow arts minister of the Tory Party for allegedly lying about an extra-marital affair”. And of course, there’s another politician with strange blond hair just across the Atlantic who made “alternative fact” peddling into an art form.
Yet for a man presumably looking to become Prime Minister, it’s strange that he’d drag up a falsehood that’s so easily proven.
Except that the lie is a massively useful political tool. Just as during the Referendum, it refocuses the entire debate back onto itself. Hence Nicola Sturgeon’s attack on Boris to “Get that lie off your bus”. It was music to his ears because every time the issue is raised it reminds people that the UK is a net payer into the EU budget which is a key point of the Leave narrative, completely ignoring the fact that the net economic benefit of EU membership is at least six times as great as the cost. With the EU negotiations in disarray and the Conservative having lost their majority, this is just a dog-whistle to galvanise their supporters. It’s clever but unscrupulous.
We mustn’t fall for it this time. Let’s keep the debate where it belongs, focused on:
- The government’s attempt at an unconstitutional power-grab
- The dismal lack of progress in the Brexit negotiations
- The damage Brexit is doing to our economy and our standing in the world