Do you remember the $64,000 Question? It originated in an American radio game show, originally the $64 Question and now often quoted as the $64,000,000 Question or simply “The Million Dollar Question”. If you’re not confused already you probably will be.
Boris Johnson again mentioned the £350 million figure from the Referendum campaign in an explosive article in last weekend’s Daily Telegraph. He said Brexit means we can control all that money and use it as we think best, on the NHS in particular. The notorious number was often claimed or blamed for swinging the result to Leave. Commentators tried to help the public appreciate the magnitude of the sum by translating it into numbers of nurses, policemen, soldiers or hospitals, aircraft carriers, or other assets; our view then was that a much lower figure would have weighed as much in the argument. But let’s see whether it can be defended.
In 2015 our EU membership dues were £17.8 billion or £342 million per week. Iain Duncan Smith claims the figure is currently £19.1 billion but we’ll stick with 2015 numbers because they’re easier to confirm and are in the right ballpark anyway. In 1984 Margaret Thatcher negotiated a discount to the annual cost but Tony Blair agreed a substantial reduction to this in 2005 in return for vague promises to reduce the cost of the CAP, which have not materialised. The discount (or Rebate) amounted to £4.9 billion in 2015 which means we actually only paid £218 million per week to Brussels. That figure on the side of the Campaign bus would have been less misleading and many Leavers, including Nigel Farage, regret the bigger number because Remainers still claim the vote was won with a lie. Boris has reignited the fire so first let’s remind his antagonists of their side’s ‘lies’ (see Britain Strangled in Europe).
Shortly before the vote the Commons Treasury Select Committee chairman, Andrew Tyrie, demanded “the arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter-claims” be halted. The Committee said the £350 million a week claim was “highly misleading“. At the same time it stated that the Remain Campaign’s claim that three million jobs were dependent on Britain staying in the bloc was also “misleading” and the assertion that families would be worse off by £4,300 a year as a result of Brexit “is likely to be misconstrued by readers … and has probably confused them“.
“This is not what the main Treasury analysis found; the average impact on household disposable incomes would be considerably smaller than this number, which refers to the impact on GDP per household.”
It added: “It is disappointing that the Treasury and the Chancellor place so much emphasis on a single figure (£4,300). Any single number that purports to encapsulate the effects of Brexit can be misunderstood, all the more so if it is used – as this number has been on occasion – unqualified by detailed explanation.“
The Treasury’s number was a ‘guesstimate’ of the effect on GDP of EU withdrawal way ahead in 2030 so probably even less accurate than its predications of the immediate effects of an OUT vote. Osborne divided this by the number of households but GDP is nothing like the aggregate of family incomes. Damned lies all round then, or rather deliberately misleading claims. To a non-statistician which is the more scary and meaningful claim:
- “3 million people are going to lose their jobs, you could be one of them”;
- “Taxpayers are sending £350 million of your money to Brussels every week”;
- “Soon your family will be £4,300 a year worse off”?
So far we have the membership fee less the Rebate to reach a gross payment to the EU which could be reduced by the amount spent from the EU budget in the UK on farm subsidies, research programmes, regional development, etc. However, Boris only claimed that we will control how we spend the money after Brexit, perhaps taking account of the fact that the Rebate could be vulnerable to future changes, as has been demanded many times by our Continental friends, or by a future UK leader. Tony Blair called it an anomaly when he gave a slice of it back and Junker’s State of the EU speech made clear that a finance minister plus the euro currency is still the target; that sounds like €400 million for starters, with absolutely no control thereafter.
So it is actually possible to justify the £350 million figure but is it worth the fuss if it diverts discussion into an argument about lies? It’s either a $64 Dollar Question , a mere diversion, or a serious point about handing control of our Treasury to a supreme authority that Britons can’t control.