The Boris Johnson Brexit Bus Lie:
The Boris Johnson Brexit bus lie that the NHS would get an extra £350m a week was one of the most contentious issues of the 2016 EU referendum campaign. Along with “Turkey is joining the EU”, the claim that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU and that money could instead be spent on the NHS created much debate during and after the referendum result.
1. On the side of the Brexit bus:
Dominic Cummings, the Campaign Director of Vote Leave, who came up with the ‘Take back control’ slogan, also wanted to capitalise on concerns about funding for the NHS. Cummings knew the NHS was something many voters cared deeply about and proposed a slogan for this purpose – “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”. The slogan was then put on the side of the official Vote Leave campaign bus. Johnson and other Leave campaigners claimed the £350m figure represented funds that the UK did not have control over as a result of having to pay for membership of the EU. It was explicitly claimed this money could redirected to the NHS instead.
2. Why is the £350m a week for the NHS a lie?
The Boris Johnson Brexit bus lie of £350 a week for the NHS is misleading and false for two reasons. Firstly, the figure does not include the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher which is taken off the UK’s membership fee before it is paid to the EU. Secondly, it does not allow for any funding that flows back from the EU (e.g. income for farmers as part of the Common Agriculture Policy and regional investments for deprived areas).
3. What did the UK Statistics Authority say?
The UK’s independent Statistics Authority said the EU membership fee of £19 billion a year, or £350 million a week, is “not an amount of money that the UK pays to the EU each year”. They estimate that the figure of £350m is around what the UK would pay if it did not have the rebate. They put actual figure as around £250 million a week, but of course even some of this money comes back to the UK is the form of funding. Wales for example, is a net beneficiary of EU membership because of poverty and its weak economy.
4. Wales and the EU bus lie:
For Wales the Boris Jonson Brexit bus lie is even more misleading because Wales receive £245 million more from the EU than it contributes. Wales gets money from the EU to invest in universities, industry and infrastructure in response to the economic imbalance. Wrexham for example received £24m in EU funds for the Entrepreneurship Support scheme to help business leaders achieve commercial success and create jobs in Wales.
Westminster funds London at a higher rate per head than Wales, but because of the EU’s policy to encourage equality Wales receives a bigger share from the EU. However, the Westminster government’s own estimates project that £5bn will be lost to the Welsh economy if the UK leaves the EU and this will be much worse if the UK leaves without a deal.
5. What has Johnson said about the bus lie since the referendum?
Almost the immediately after the referendum many Leave politicians admitted there was no £350 million a week going to the NHS and that even if there was a Brexit bonus it could not all be allocated to the NHS. Despite this in September 2017 Boris Johnson revived the £350 million claim in a 4,000-word essay in the Daily Telegraph.
This prompted a critical response from Sir David Norgrove, UK Statistics Chief, who said the then foreign secretary’s use of the £350 million figure was “a clear misuse of official statistics”. In his response to UK Statistics criticism of his use of the figure Johnson said his words had been interpreted in a crassly simplistic way and that it was a “wilful distortion”. In other words Johnson was admitting that the Brexit bus claim was untrue all along.
In July 2017, Dominic Cummings claimed Brexit may have been “an error”. In a late night exchange on Twitter, Cummings said the referendum was a “dumb idea” before trying other ways of taking back some control from Brussels.
6. Johnson Tries to Bury the Bus Lie in Google:
In June 2019, in an interview with Talk Radio, Johnson was asked what he does to switch off from politics. Johnson replied that he painted buses on wooden crates, including the passengers enjoying themselves. The Guardian claimed it was “a pointless, obvious lie. One there had been no need to tell.”
However, the claim did gain a substantial amount of media coverage. As a result it pushed the Vote Leave bus lie down the Google and other search engine rankings. A number of commentators believe that it was a deliberate attempt to reduce the ranking of the Vote Leave bus lie. Creating a positive story around chosen key words is a common SEO strategy used to limit reputational damage.
Johnson continues to lie. Johnson has repeatedly told Parliament and the media that there won’t be any custom checks between GB and Northern Ireland. The EU have clearly stated there will be checks and yet much of the UK media have not effectively challenged the government on this. The danger is that a Johnson premiership will further undermine the union by increasing disillusionment with the Westminster government’s ability to represent the interests of people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Indeed, the UK government confirmed in May 2020, that there will be checks on animals and food produce entering Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK. This is despite Johnson previously saying no UK government could agree to a border down the Irish Sea. The government has also indicated it may pay businesses in Northern Ireland for the additional costs incurred as a result of border checks.
This is a long way from “there is no downside to Brexit” and “taking back control”.
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- About the author: Neal Cole is a digital marketer who has worked in a number of European cities including Paris and London, and also in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. He is the founder of Conversion Uplift Ltd which provides digital optimisation consultancy services and has worked for brands such as Manchester Airport Group Online, Hastings Direct, Deezer.com, Very.co.uk, and Bgo.com.