It’s just over two years since British voters took to the polls and gave the government the green light to leave the European Union, and since then all things Brexit have dominated the news.
The trouble is, even as Article 50 deadline day approaches – the UK is scheduled to the leave the EU on March 29, 2019 – we’re still no clearer on what Brexit will mean for consumers, householders, businesses, or anyone really, as those in favour (Brexiteers) and those against (Remainers) leaving the EU continue to point fingers and point out that neither knows what they’re talking about. None of which is doing the EU negotiations, or public confidence any good.
And it now looks like the government is going back to a pre-referendum ‘promise’ to get the public back on side.
The Brexit bus promise
During the run up to the 2016 referendum, one of the main bargaining chips from the ‘Leave’ campaign was that the £350 million the UK pays to the EU could instead be funneled to the NHS. The leave campaign was so confident of this pledge that it had it plastered on the side of what has become known as the ‘Brexit battle bus’, and there can be no doubt this swung a lot of voters – if there’s one thing we can all agree on in the UK, it’s that the NHS is vital to society and needs more funding.
The trouble is, there was never any intention to give the NHS £350 million a week, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, could barely believe the public would take what was written quite so literally. Johnson said he was shocked that his words should be understood in this crassly simplistic way. To suggest that he was claiming that £350m might be “available for extra public spending” is a “wilful distortion” etc. In other words, the foreign secretary’s defence amounts to an admission that the slogan on his famous Brexit campaign bus – “We send the EU £350m a week: let’s fund our NHS instead” – was bogus all along.
And it seems the government wants us to believe it all over again, as the Brexit bus promise has been re-packaged as the ‘Brexit dividend’.
The Brexit dividend
If there’s one stick that the Conservative government can be beaten with, it’s that they’ve underfunded the NHS – some even suggesting they’re creating a crisis to smooth the way for privatisation – and on the 70th anniversary of its creation, Theresa May, the UK prime minister, has announced a birthday present for the institution – an extra £20 billion of funding a year by 2023.
The trouble is, there’s a distinct the lack of detail.
The party that coined the phrase ‘magic money tree’ to shout down any fiscal reforms Labour put forward in the run up to the last general election, is now telling us that it will be putting an extra £20billion a year into the NHS by 2023, funded by a Brexit “dividend” – that’s £600million a week, which is almost twice the amount pledged on the Brexit bus, which itself was an amount the Boris Johnson said wouldn’t actually be available for the NHS.
And the PM even added that a “little bit” more that will have to come from taxpayers – so where will it come from? The magic money tree?
The treasury has already dismissed the idea of any Brexit dividend, saying any money the country saves by not having to pay into the EU will be far outweighed by a weakened UK economy.
Paul Johnson, former chief microeconomist at the Treasury and now director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank, said: “There is no Brexit dividend. Payments to the EU will fall [after Brexit], but tax revenues will fall more as a result of Brexit.
Adding: “That is the official position of the government, which has accepted the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast that the public finances are likely to be weakened to the tune of £15 billion a year as a result of the [Brexit] referendum vote.”
He then unequivocally burst the Brexit dividend bubble by saying: “You can’t pay for it [NHS] from an imaginary [Brexit] dividend.”
So, it seems the whole Brexit shambles has come full circle, and a PM and government desperate to hang on to power is now playing with the public’s emotions where the NHS is concerned and making more empty promises that it can’t back up with tangible figures.
As for the 2023 deadline for this funding? Well, that would be just enough time for the government to spin this one out and make it their manifesto promise at the next general election, whether it’s called in a couple of months or a couple of years.
Confused with all by talk of Brexiteers, Remainers and the Brexit bus? Check out our two-part guide to busting the Brexit jargon.