When Boris Johnson received a sharply worded rebuke for his 'clear misuse of official statistics' from Sir David Norgrove, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, The Spectator rushed to his aid. Steerpike asked why the statistics chief had intervened when 'every word from Boris (this time) was accurate'.
The short answer is that Norgrove intervened because Boris was wrong to say that 'once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week'.
Here’s why. The Boris explanation - or, at any rate, Steerpike’s - is as follows: 'We all know the deal with the EU: we pay in, then there’s the rebate and EU spending (farm subsidies, etc) in the UK'.
But this isn’t our deal with the EU. The rebate doesn’t leave the UK. We do not 'pay in' and then receive it back; it is a discount on our membership fee. As Norgrove’s predecessor made clear last year: 'HM Treasury pays over the UK’s contributions after deducting the value of the rebate'. What is described as the 'rebate' actually functions as a discount.
So what should the figure be? Enter Carl Emmerson, Deputy Director of the highly respected and impartial Institute for Fiscal Studies. The Office for Budget Responsibility, he points out, produces the government’s own forecasts for public finances. These 'contain an allowance of almost £250 million per week - not £350 million' - for funding that could in principle go to the NHS rather than the EU'. But the 'direct result of the Brexit vote' has been to worsen public finances by £300 million per week - a net result of £50 million in the red, rather than £350 million in the black.
What about Boris’ riposte to Norgrove, that the rebate 'only forms part of the EU’s financing arrangements with the agreement of all the other EU Member States'? Doesn’t this allow him to say we would take back control of the full £350 million? Unfortunately not. Although the rebate was adopted by all the other member states, the UK can veto any change to it. Is Boris really unaware of this?
If you bought a coat in the summer sales at a steep discount - and then returned it demanding a refund of the face value - you would be given short shrift. People would certainly not write lengthy articles defending your behaviour. When Boris does the same, his friends in the press shouldn’t make excuses for him.
Sam Ashworth-Hayes works for InFacts