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How this ‘Great Fat Lie’ has become a Big Fat Truth: Remainers scorned the claim Brexit would give an extra £350m a week to the NHS. In fact, it’s now getting an extra £710m, writes ROSS CLARK


There are still some Remainers who think that the British people were hoodwinked into voting for Brexit by what Alastair Campbell called a ‘great fat lie’ painted on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus.

In fact, few slogans in political history can have caused as much anger as ‘We send the EU £350million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead.’

The head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, complained that it was ‘a clear misuse of official statistics’. Then Tory MP Sarah Wollaston defected to the Remain camp over it, saying she would never join a battle bus ‘that has at the heart of its campaign a figure that I know to be untrue’. It even inspired a crowdfunded, unsuccessful campaign for a private prosecution against Boris Johnson for ‘misconduct in public office’.

Almost eight years on, the Remain camp is still at it. The Bath University School of Management published a report last year arguing that Leave voters had, on the whole, been of ‘lower cognitive ability’ than Remain voters. It suggested that their intelligence level – and their susceptibility to being duped by misinformation – had allowed them to be swung by ‘contradictory, false and often fraudulent’ campaign slogans.

few slogans in political history can have caused as much anger as ‘We send the EU £350million a week'

few slogans in political history can have caused as much anger as ‘We send the EU £350million a week’

Boris Johnson MP addresses members of the public in Parliament St, York during the Brexit Battle Bus tour of the UK on May 23, 2016 in York, England

Boris Johnson MP addresses members of the public in Parliament St, York during the Brexit Battle Bus tour of the UK on May 23, 2016 in York, England

Even Nigel Farage, soon after the 2016 referendum, described it as a ‘mistake’ to promise all the money saved on EU membership to the NHS.

It appeared that the country’s most famous Brexiteer agreed with 22 Labour MPs who wrote a letter to The Guardian after the Leave vote saying: ‘We will keep on asking, where is the £350million for the NHS that was promised by the Leave camp?’

So, what is the truth?

Admittedly, the £350million figure was debatable, in that the amount was Britain’s gross weekly contribution to the EU, ignoring the rebate that Margaret Thatcher had winkled out of Brussels. Include the rebate, and Britain was sending £267million a week to the EU in 2015/16.

Moreover, by taking into account EU payments to British businesses and public authorities, the net figure fell to £181million.

BUT even £181million a week is a huge sum – it would pay the wages of around 5,000 nurses, alone. That aside, how much extra money have governments given the NHS since the Brexit referendum? The answer may come as a surprise.

The amount isn’t £350million. In fact, the NHS is receiving twice as much extra per week as the controversial Vote Leave bus slogan claimed it would.

The respected health think-thank The King’s Fund says that in 2016/17, the Government spent £144.1billion on health and social care (at 2022/23 prices). In 2023/24, by contrast, that figure had mushroomed to £181billion. That is a real-terms increase of £36.9 billion a year – or £710million per week. To reiterate, these are real-term figures, meaning that the spike in inflation the country has experienced up to 2023 – peaking at 11.1 per cent in October 2022 – has been factored in.

So it transpires that Vote Leave’s £350million was not a gross over-estimate of how much money would be available to fund the NHS after Britain left the EU – it was an underestimate.

Those who ridiculed the Vote Leave campaign for the slogan owe Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers an apology.

This doesn’t mean that all is well with the NHS. Waiting lists are far too long, A&E waiting times shockingly high and cancer survival rates significantly lower than in some other comparable countries. Spending extra money on public services, sadly, is no guarantee those services will improve, not least when they remain unreformed and top-heavy with well-remunerated management.

But no one can say the extra cash promised by the Vote Leave campaign has failed to materialise.

‘A-ha!’ a redoubtable Remainer might cry. ‘What about Covid?’ Yes, billions more were pumped into the NHS to buy vaccines, PPE and equip new Nightingale hospitals. The King’s Fund tallies this extra Covid spend as £47.4billion in 2020/21, ballooning that year’s health budget to over £200billion. A further £40.4billion was spent on Covid the following year.

The pandemic undoubtedly prompted the Government, perhaps unwittingly, to fulfil the Leave campaign’s Brexit bus suggestion. But the point is that, after leaving the EU, there was extra money available to the Treasury to maintain higher levels of spending, even after the worst of Covid.Compare that to the grim predictions for the health service made by the Remain campaign.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Brexit would result in NHS spending being £135 per head lower than it would be if Britain voted to remain in the EU. Labour claimed the NHS budget would have to be slashed by £10.5billion, with every hospital in England losing 1,000 nurses and 155 doctors. A few months after the referendum, a survey by the British Medical Association found that more than four in ten doctors from the European Economic Area who worked in the UK were considering leaving this country. This has all proved to be risibly wrong.

While doctors and nurses from other European countries have always come and gone from the NHS, there has been no net loss of EU nationals from its staff. The number employed by the NHS grew from 58,702 in June 2016 to 74,142 in June 2023.

Those who ridiculed the Vote Leave campaign for the slogan owe Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers an apology

Those who ridiculed the Vote Leave campaign for the slogan owe Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers an apology

Regardless of Brexit, the health service has significantly increased its workforce by recruiting from across the world (stock image)

Regardless of Brexit, the health service has significantly increased its workforce by recruiting from across the world (stock image) 

Although NHS bosses say they now have more detail on staff nationality than they had in 2016, meaning the two figures might not be directly comparable, clearly there has been no mass exodus of Continental staff from the NHS.

Regardless of Brexit, the health service has significantly increased its workforce by recruiting from across the world. In June 2016, the UK employed 110,884 doctors and 317,428 nurses. By last December, the figures were 148,994 doctors and 387,171 nurses. Yet many still claim Britain’s exit from the EU has left the NHS short of doctors and nurses.

In 2022, the health think-tank the Nuffield Trust said Brexit had resulted in a shortage of 4,000 doctors. Actually, the tail-off in numbers of staff from EU countries began two years before the referendum, but the upwards trend has increased again since 2019.

The Remain campaign’s scare stories have proved as hollow as a hospital bedpan. Incidentally, their dire prophesies on the economy have not weathered any better.

A month before the referendum, the Treasury claimed that a Brexit vote would result in the economy shrinking by up to six per cent two years later, with unemployment surging by between 500,000 and 800,000. Actually, our economy grew by 1.9 per cent in 2016, by 2.7 per cent in 2017 and by 1.4 per cent in 2018, while the unemployment rate fell from five per cent in the second quarter of 2016 to 4.1 per cent two years later – making the Treasury’s ‘Project Fear’ predictions hopelessly wrong.

Meanwhile, the EU’s mammoth budget has continued to soar – from £116billion in 2016 to £207billion in 2022. If Britain had remained a member and our contribution to the Brussels money pit had increased in line, our net payments would have increased from £267million a week in 2016 to £476million a week by 2023.

All this adds up to an unchallengeable fact. Instead of it being ‘a big fat lie’ that leaving the EU would save Britain £350 million a week and that we could then spend boost expenditure on the NHS, it’s turned out to be a big fat truth.



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