I personally did not support the particular way in which the official Vote Leave campaign used the £350 million figure during the referendum campaign and that was one of the many reasons why I did not support that particular campaign group, instead preferring other leave-supporting groups such as “The Bruges Group”, “The Bow Group”, etc… However, it is worth bearing the following points in mind:
1) The figure could be described as misleading but it was not a lie. The Vote Leave campaign never claimed it was a net figure and, since the referendum, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in London has stated that the gross annual figure was actually £367 million per week (read here and here). The strength of using the £350 million figure was that we have absolutely no control over how any of that £350 million is spent and what it is spent on. We pay the EU a gross ~£19.8 billion per year and we get ~£10bn back per year but we have no control whatsoever over how this money is spent. It would be like you giving me £20 and me giving you £10 back in Fat Face vouchers – you may not want to only spend that money in Fat Face but you have no choice but to spend it in Fat Face. Once we’ve left, this money can be democratically allocated and our elected Parliament shall decided how it is spent, not the EU.
2) Once we have formally and officially left both the EU and its internal market, it will be possible for the UK Government to spend an extra £367 million on the NHS if it really wants to. I personally would not recommend such a course of action as it would deprive farming (and other areas previously subsidised by the EU) of some funds but it would be possible. It would be the Government’s decision. It is highly likely that at least some of that money will indeed be spent on the NHS.
3) The figure was constantly doubted, questioned and scrutinised by the press and the media and so very few people truly believed it to be a net figure.
4) As Daniel Hannan MEP has pointed out, this was not a General Election and so we were not electing the Vote Leave campaign. It was a single, binary decision – should we remain a member of the EU or leave the EU? It was made clear that, after the vote, the implementation of the result would solely be left up to the Government of the day and not either campaign. Therefore, the campaign group cannot be expected to deliver on this pledge and cannot be held accountable. The would have been true of the Remain campaign group “Britain Stringer in Europe” if they had won. They would not be able to be held accountable when the EU developed its own army, when the EU forced us into further political and economic integration, etc…
5) The Vote Leave campaign never said “When we leave the EU, an extra £350 million per week will be spent on the NHS”. They never said “We pledge…” or “We promise…” They instead said “Let’s spend it on the NHS instead”, in other words, that is what we would like, not what will necessarily happen because we recognise that we are a just a campaign group, not a political party seeking to become the government. Some in the leave campaign wanted the money to fund a personal income tax cut instead and said so during the campaign. There were differing views and that’s because these ideas were just suggestions of how a future government could choose to spend this money once we had formally left the EU and taken back full democratic control of all of our gross weekly monetary contribution to the EU.
6) Many, many other groups such as “Grassroots Out”, “Leave.EU”, the “Bruges Group”, “Get Britain Out”, “Better Off Out”, “Lawyers for Britain”, “Economists for Britain”, “Veterans for Britain”, “Students for Britain”, etc… campaigned for a leave vote but did not use the £350 million figure.
7) All campaigns and all parties make misleading claims in referendum campaigns and election campaigns. The Remain campaign falsely claimed that there would be a recession in the immediate aftermath of a vote to leave the EU and, three years later, we are still waiting for it. They also claimed that every UK household would be £4,300 worse off each year due to a leave vote but they then, as even remain campaigners admit, never used the figure again after a few days as they knew hardly anyone actually believed it. As John Redwood MP has pointed out, New Labour took office on a pledge to end “boom and bust” but the 2008 financial crash ensued. It is sadly inevitable that all campaign groups and parties will make some misleading claims. The important thing is that these claims should be doubted and questioned by the press and the media as the £350 million figure clearly was time and time again.
By Ben Somervell