Boris Johnson and the £350m-a-week NHS Brexit pledge

Boris Johnson triggered a round of Tory infighting and a spat with the country’s statistics watchdog after setting out his vision for Brexit in 2017.

The then foreign secretary used a 4,000-word essay in the Daily Telegraph to revive the widely-criticised claim that quitting the European Union would allow the UK to take back control of £350 million a week, some of which could be used to boost NHS funding.

The claim first attracted criticism during the referendum campaign in 2016, when Mr Johnson travelled around the country in a bus emblazoned with the slogan “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”.

Mr Johnson was one of the key figures in the Leave campaign and his Telegraph piece was an attempt to show optimism about the Brexit process, to insist that “this country will succeed in our new national enterprise, and will succeed mightily”.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

His revival of the £350 million claim led to a rebuke from UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir David Norgrove, who said it was a “clear misuse” of official figures.

Brexiteers claimed the figure represented the amount of money the UK does not have control over as a result of EU membership, but it does not include the rebate or take into account any funding that flows back from Brussels.

Michael Gove backed Mr Johnson for reviving the controversial £350 million claim at the time.

The Environment Secretary, who spectacularly torpedoed Mr Johnson’s run for the Tory leadership after the Brexit vote, expressed support for his Cabinet colleague and accused critics of trying to “refight” the referendum.

Mr Gove tweeted: “In the debate on EU contributions it’s important people look at what Boris actually wrote in his Telegraph article, not headlines.

“Debate should be forward looking on how to make most of life outside EU, not refighting referendum.”

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In 2016, numerous MPs and campaigners were prompted to ask the Government when the money will be made available to the health service

Philip Dunne, speaking as a health minister in September that year, said the NHS should not “count any chickens” when it comes to getting the cash promised by Brexiteers.

He said the pledge was not something “any health ministers were part of”, in what was the latest twist at the time.

In November 2017, head of NHS England Simon Stevens called on Brexiteers to make good on the pledge.

He said: “Rather than our criticising these clear Brexit funding commitments to NHS patients – promises entered into by Cabinet ministers and by MPs – the public want to see them honoured.

“By the end of the NHS’s next financial year – March 2019 – the United Kingdom will have left the European Union.

“Trust in democratic politics will not be strengthened if anyone now tries to argue, ‘You voted Brexit, partly for a better funded health service. But precisely because of Brexit, you now can’t have one’.”

In that same month, Mr Johnson insisted “substantial sums” will be available for the NHS from the £350 million a week.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

He repeated the figure and made the pledge as he opened the third day of the Budget debate.

Speaking in the Commons, Liberal Democrat former minister Tom Brake intervened to ask: “Can he set out in the House when he is going to deliver his promise of £350 million a week for the NHS?”

As he was heckled by Conservative MPs, Mr Brake added: “They don’t like hearing about it, do they?”

Mr Johnson replied: “With pleasure – as he knows full well, when we leave the European Union there will be at least £350 million a week of which we will take back control.

“And as he knows full well, substantial sums from that funding will be available for use in our National Health Service.

“If he believes that money should be spent elsewhere, if he seriously believes that money should be squandered on ill-audited projects around Europe, then I think he is not expressing the will of the British people.”