I try to avoid conversations or discussions about the result of the EU Referendum result on 23 June 2016. I just think that so many look for any media report, which can be interpreted as support for the wisdom of how they voted in the referendum. Almost every report we read concerning the economy is either ‘Bad News’ because of Brexit, or ‘Better News’ despite Brexit. So I generally steer clear in personal conversations. It costs friends! But not this morning. I was drawn in by a couple of friends who are convinced that a majority of the British electorate voted Leave because of a bus that toured the country during the referendum campaign declaring that when we left the EU, we would be able to spend an extra £350 million per week on the NHS. Usually I just mutter to myself along the lines of “that’s cobblers”. It was a campaign slogan, rubbished by the Government and almost everyone else. I’ve certainly made no reference to and not heard others do either - except to also rubbish it. Today, I took on this statement so casually and frequently delivered.
I entirely accept that this figure is not sustainable in a meaningful way. It may be arguable that the payment the UK makes to be a member of the EU totals £350 million per week, but if the rebate and return payments to the UK for specific EU programmes are taken into account, the figure is somewhere between £150 million and £200 million per week, depending how it’s calculated. The point I make is that the message that the bus would have conveyed was that a massive sum of money was being transferred to the EU. There have been little difference in impact if the message on the bus had read £160 million per week or £350 million per week. To almost everyone, it was just a massive sum of money.
But there was one big difference. Those in favour of the UK remaining in the EU were able to rage against what they regarded as a false figure. The Remain campaigners ensured the message on the bus became much the highest profile ‘slogan’ of the entire referendum campaign through endless repetition. It was the Remain campaigners who put the message that a massive sum of money is being sent to the EU every week at the top of the agenda. At the time I thought, and said, and have said ever since that I would not be surprised if the figure was designed to create a row in order to secure attention, through argument and controversy. If it was, it certainly worked.
Now to the final thought I want to ‘float’. Last week the head of NHS England, Simon Stephens said he wanted that £350 million per week for the NHS - a very high profile intervention a few days before the budget. I wonder what the impact would be if the Chancellor were to announce in his budget in a few days time that he intended to do just that. It would involve a commitment to increase the annual NHS budget by about £18 billion from that which existed before 23 June 2016. The Govt has increased the budget by a few billion already, and may well be planning another increase of a few billion in the budget. I also think it’s reasonable to think of Health and Social Care as one budget head. And we know that we should put a quite a few billions more into social care. Of course an extra £18 billion into Health and Social Care would mean reductions in spending elsewhere, but it would be a massive vote winner and shoot the Remain campaigners biggest fox.