What is your reaction to the re-ignition of the row, courtesy of an “essay” by Boris Johnson, over whether or not Britain will be able to “take back control” of £350m a week of money that currently goes to the European Union after Brexit?
Perhaps it is a weary shrug of the shoulders. “So what?” you might say. “Whatever the precise figure no one disputes we send rather a lot of cash to Europe. Why obsesses about the exact amount? Why send everyone to sleep by debating ‘gross’ and ‘net’ measurements of our contributions to the EU Budget?”
Such a reaction might be understandable. But it’s misguided. This is not an arcane squabble about numbers by people who have nothing better to do. What is at stake here is the hygiene of our public realm.
In a pluralistic political system people and parties can disagree endlessly on values and objectives. They can disagree about how to navigate the multitude of trade-offs that a country faces. They can even disagree about the interpretation of evidence.
But what a liberal political system requires to function effectively is a shared belief in certain objective realities. It demands a level of respect for non-partisan institutions such as the law courts and statistical agencies.
Those are the rules of the democratic game. Without that acceptance and institutional respect the whole ship of government is perilously unanchored and our system is thrownwide open to demagoguery.
The “£350m a week” assertion, to put it bluntly, breaks the rules of the liberal democratic game. It’s manifestly untrue that the UK sends that amount of money to the EU each week. The figure takes no account of the UK’s rebate, which takes the actual sum down to £250m a week at most. The rebate portion is never sent to the EU. Quite simply, you cannot “take back control” of money that you never relinquished control of.
It was a disgrace that the official Vote Leave campaign continually asserted this inflated figure in the referendum despite being informed by statisticians that it was inaccurate and misleading. And it’s even more of a disgrace when Boris Johnson dredges it up again now more than a year later.
Our political system has delineated standards in what we expect from ministers when it comes to their use of official figures. Johnson has fallen disastrously short of those standards. That is why the head of the UK’s Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, publicly, and quite properly, reprimanded the Foreign Secretary for a “clear misuse of official statistics” at the weekend.
We should be clear about what is happening here. This wasn’t a mistake. Boris Johnson knows full well that the figure is simply wrong. But he asserts it anyway. Why? In part it’s probably because he wants to exaggerate and whip up public anger over transfers from UK taxpayers to foreigners at an acutely sensitive time in the Brexit negotiations. But it’s also partly because he wishes to assert his authorityover objective facts; to show that the rules don’t apply to him.
We can discern this sense of entitlement from his contrition-less response to Sir David, which reads like an attempt to intimidate the regulator. This fits a dismal pattern of behaviour. Johnson baselessly accused a previous chair of the Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, who had the temerity to rebuke him for misusing statistics when he was the London Mayor, of being a “Labour stooge”.
Johnson arrogates to himself the authority to lie with impunity. And he is prepared to smear public officials who contradict him. If this reminds you of the behaviour of Donald Trump, who consistently asserts things that are manifestly untrue and attacks those who challenge him, it should.
One popular interpretation of the row over the £350m a week claim during the referendum campaign was that it actually turned out to be a great coup for the Leave campaign because it increased the salience of the costs of EU membership in the public’s mind. It might be tempting to conclude from this that one should just ignore the noxious resurrection of the figure and focus on other aspects of Brexit. But what matters – ultimately even more than Brexit – is the health of our body politic. If we don’t fight for standards in public life, we cannot expect them to survive.