The UK’s statistics watchdog has stood by its criticism of Boris Johnson in a growing row over the possible financial windfall the NHS may get from Brexit.
Sir David Norgrove said he was “disappointed” the foreign secretary had, in an article, revived Leave campaigners’ disputed referendum pledge of £350m a week extra for the NHS.
The watchdog said it was misleading and a “clear misuse” of figures.
Mr Johnson has replied to Sir David – accusing him of “wilful distortion”.
In his 4,000 word piece for Daily Telegraph on Saturday, Mr Johnson wrote: “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week.
“It would be a fine thing as many of us have pointed out if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”
The article, in which he also said he opposed paying the EU to secure temporary access to the single market during a transitional phase, divided Tory MPs.
Some claimed it undermined Theresa May’s leadership ahead of a crucial speech later this week and amounted to a leadership challenge.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd accused her cabinet colleague of being a Brexit “back-seat driver”, telling the BBC that while it was fine for Mr Johnson to show his enthusiasm for Brexit, he should remember he was not “driving the car”.
The chair of the UK Statistics Authority wrote on Sunday to Mr Johnson setting out his concerns about the £350m figure.
The authority previously criticised use of the figure – which was displayed on the side of a campaign bus – during the 2016 referendum campaign.
Analysis: ‘Public slanging match’
By Chris Mason, BBC political correspondent
This is an extraordinary row.
A senior cabinet minister and the most senior civil servant responsible for official statistics, engaged in a public slanging match on a Sunday afternoon.
At lunchtime, Sir David’s letter, accusing the foreign secretary of “a clear misuse of official statistics.”
Then the first counter attack: a spokesman for Mr Johnson claimed that Sir David was actually complaining about the headlines provoked by the foreign secretary’s article.
No he wasn’t, responded a spokeswoman for the UK Statistics Authority.
And then Mr Johnson’s formal written reply to Sir David accusing him of “a complete misrepresentation of what I said” and asking him “to withdraw it.”
Sir David is yet to respond again.
Who will people trust the most? The civil servant or the politician?
That is your call.
Sir David wrote in the letter: “I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350 million per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union”.
The watchdog said the article “confused” the size of the UK’s annual gross and net contributions to the EU’s budget.
His letter continued: “It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including for example for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics.”
In Mr Johnson’s reply, he wrote: “I must say that I was surprised and disappointed by your letter of today, since it was based on what appeared to be a wilful distortion of the text of my article.
“You say that I claim that there would be £350 million that ‘might be available for extra public spending’ when we leave the EU.
“This is a complete misrepresentation of what I said and I would like you to withdraw it.”
He continued: “Once we leave the EU we will take back control of all such UK-funded spending, and, although of course I have no doubt that we will continue to spend significantly on UK priorities such as agriculture and research, that spending will be done under UK control.
“As for the rebate – whose value you did not know – it only forms part of the EU’s financing arrangements with the agreement of all other EU member states.
“We do not control it ourselves.”
By Liz Corbin, Reality Check Editor
The claim that the UK sent £350m per week to the EU is wrong.
There are three things to consider:
- The UK’s gross contribution to the EU
- The UK’s rebate, negotiated by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
- The amount of money the EU gives to the UK
Boris Johnson and other Leave campaigners claimed that in the calendar year 2014, the UK gave £350m per week to the EU.
The UK’s gross contribution was actually £361m, but – crucially – the rebate is removed before any money is sent to the EU. So the amount sent to the EU in 2014 was £276m per week, after the rebate.
The Vote Leave campaign’s claim argued that the money could be spent on the NHS.
Well, it could, but that would mean cutting all the money the EU sends back to the UK, for example on farming subsidies and grants for community projects.
That was in 2014. The amount the UK sends the EU has been falling. In 2016 it sent £252m per week to the EU after the rebate, the lowest since 2012.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper said Mr Johnson “just thinks it’s OK to repeatedly lie”.
Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: “I’m glad to see the independent UK Statistics Authority has the courage to slap Boris down. It’s a shame the same can’t be said of Theresa May.”
Earlier, Sir Vince said Mrs May’s authority would be undermined if she did not remove Mr Johnson following on from his article in Saturday’s Telegraph.
But the BBC understands the foreign secretary will not be sacked, despite anger among some MPs.
Several Tory MPs have praised Mr Johnson’s vision of what can be achieved after the UK leaves and said his objectives are largely in tune with those of the government.
Ms Rudd said she did not believe it was a prelude to a leadership challenge.
“I know what an irrepressible enthusiast (Johnson) is about Brexit, and what he’s done is set it out there, I think it’s absolutely fine, I would expect nothing less from Boris,” she said.
But she added: “I don’t want him managing the Brexit process, what we have got is Theresa May managing the process, driving the car.
“I am going to make sure, as far as I and the rest of the cabinet is concerned, we help her do that.”
Several prominent Leave campaigners have distanced themselves from the £350m figure in the wake of the referendum result although others have continued to insist it is legitimate.
The prime minister is due to make a major speech on Brexit in Florence, amid speculation she is prepared to announce some kind of deal on transitional trade payments.