Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
Michael Gove just claimed Brexit has “delivered” on Vote Leave’s boldest promise, suggesting it gives £350m a week to the NHS. But has it?
The levelling up, housing and communities secretary told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Tuesday: “There is more than £350m extra a week for our NHS.”
Weak applause broke out in the conference room at that, prompting the cabinet minister to say: “Promise made, promise delivered.”
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During the 2016 EU referendum, it was often claimed that the UK “sends” £350m a week to Brussels and this money could otherwise be spent on the health service.
But, it’s not entirely clear what statistics Gove was leaning on here for his speech – made seven years after the UK voted to leave and three and a half since we officially split from the bloc – especially at a time when the NHS is really struggling.
Where did the original £350m claim come from?
The Vote Leave campaign regularly promoted this claim during the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, and it famously appeared on the side of campaign buses.
This bus used in EU referendum campaign with the statement: "We send the EU £350 million a week let's fund our NHS instead."
The £350m stat is approximately what the UK would send to the EU budget on a weekly basis – *if* we didn’t have a budget rebate when we were in the bloc.
But we did have a huge rebate, as negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, and could not be changed in future without the UK’s agreement.
Was it ever an accurate promise?
This particular claim has been met with scepticism for years.
The UK National Statistics Authority dismantled the claim in 2016: “As we have made clear, the UK’s contribution to the EU is paid after the application of the rebate.
“We have also pointed out that there are payments received by the UK public and private sectors that are relevant here.
“The continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics.”
Full Fact said: “This is wrong, it’s more like £250m a week.
“In any case, the impact on the economy from changes to trade after leaving the EU is likely to be far bigger than savings from the UK’s membership fee.”
And, ever since early 2020, the chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has repeatedly predicted that leaving the EU would likely cut GDP growth by 4%, a £100 billion loss due to decreased output.
But, when you add in the NHS, it gets a little more complicated.
The think tank, UK in a Changing Europe, found in February: “The NHS budget (in England alone) has in fact risen by more than £350m a week since 2016.
“In fact, between 2015-16, the year before the referendum, and 2019-20, the year before the Covid-19 pandemic, it rose by £400 million a week in real terms.”
However, it claimed this was not related to diverted savings from leaving the EU.
It added: “Brexit has had an economic impact roughly as severe as was predicted: spending has had to come from taxes, borrowing and squeezing other departments.”
Even with extra spending, it’s well-known that the service is still strapped for cash, and struggling to deal with the growing and ageing population.
The think tank also points out how Brexit impacted the NHS workforce, with fewer employees arriving from the EU and EFTA states due to a new language testing regime, further stretching the service.
Have attitudes towards the claim changed since it was first made?
Leading Brexit campaigner Iain Duncan Smith deliberately distanced himself from the claim, alleging he “never said” the NHS would get £350m a week extra, telling the BBC in 2016 that it was “not a promise broken”.
Nigel Farage, one of the most prominent Brexiteers, also sidestepped the claim hours after the referendum result, pointing out that he was part of the unofficial Leave.EU campaign not Vote Leave which made the initial promise.
He said that he would “never have made that claim”, and that it was one of the “mistakes” from the official Vote Leave team.
In July 2021, then-PM Johnson told the Liaison Committee in Westminster that he believed the £350m number was actually an “slight underestimate”.
Then-health secretary Sajid Javid also told LBC in September 2021 that year the promised money has “gone into the health and care service”.