When Britain went to the polls on 23 June, millions of voters were under the impression that the UK spends £350 million a week on the EU, and that this money could be redirected to the NHS if we left the union.
The claim was demonstrably untrue, but a greater shock was the Leave campaigners’ attempts to deny they had ever made it as soon as they had won the referendum.
In a leaflet issued in early April headed The UK and the European Union: THE FACTS, Vote Leave wrote:
The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.
On 15 April Gisela Stuart MP, the co-chair of Vote Leave, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4: “Every week we send £350 million to Brussels. I’d rather that we control how to spend that money, and I had that control I would spend it on the NHS.”
This idea became the slogan emblazoned on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus – “We send the EU £350 million a week; let’s fund our NHS instead” – which was unveiled on 11 May.
A tweet from Vote Leave went further on 19 May, explicitly proposing to “give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week”.
As the FACTS leaflet implicitly acknowledged – but which Gisela Stuart and the battle bus and the social media pledges failed to do – the £350 million figure was gross not net.
Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said on 27 May: “The UK Statistics Authority is disappointed to note that there continue to be suggestions that the UK contributes £350 million to the EU each week, and that this full amount could be spent elsewhere.
“As we have made clear, the UK’s contribution to the EU is paid after the application of the rebate. We have also pointed out that there are payments received by the UK public and private sectors that are relevant here. The continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics.”
The UK’s rebate from the EU is approximately £100 million a week, while EU spending on the UK was estimated by the Treasury at £4.4 billion last year. A further £1.4 billion is injected directly into the UK’s private sector for such things as scientific research.
On this assessment, the UK spends £136 million a week on the EU, not £350 million.
On the morning after the referendum Nigel Farage told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that the claim written on the side of the Vote Leave Battle Bus – that leaving the EU would release £350m a week that could be spent on the NHS – was “a mistake”. “It wasn’t one of my adverts,” he said.
The Ukip leader had backed both Vote Leave and the rival Leave.EU campaigns.
Two days later Iain Duncan Smith, who was a member of the Vote Leave Campaign Committee, claimed he had never said the NHS would get £350m a week – despite being repeatedly photographed in front of the bus.
And the following day Chris Grayling, also a member of the Vote Leave Campaign Committee, told Good Morning Britain: “The specific proposal by the Vote Leave campaign was in fact to spend £100 million a week of that on the NHS. I hope that aspiration will be met.”