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Boris Johnson rounds on watchdog in row over cash for NHS claim

By Sam Lister

Boris Johnson has accused the head of the statistics watchdog of a "complete misrepresentation" of his claims about Brexit and called on him to withdraw the criticism.

The Foreign Secretary has written to Sir David Norgrove to say he is "surprised and disappointed" by the letter he received.

Mr Johnson claimed the UK Statistics Authority chief had privately conceded he was "more concerned" by the headlines in the coverage of the 4,000-word Brexit blueprint and "accepted that I was not responsible for those".

Sir David had written to Mr Johnson to say he was "surprised and disappointed" that the widely-discredited referendum pledge that up to £350 million a week extra could be spent on the NHS after Brexit had been revisited and said it was a "clear misuse" of official figures.

He stood by the criticism when the Foreign Secretary's aides later claimed he was "absolutely fine" with the piece.

In a highly unusual move, Mr Johnson has now responded to Sir David, criticising his approach. 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.

"When we spoke you conceded that you were more concerned by the headline and the BBC coverage, though you accepted that I was not responsible for those.

"I suggest if the BBC coverage offends you that you write to the BBC. 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.

"I in fact said: 'once we have settled our accounts we will take back control of roughly £350m 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'.

"That is very different from claiming that there would be an extra £350m available for public spending and I am amazed that you should impute such a statement to me."

It is not the first time the £350m figure has been disputed by the Authority.

The watchdog previously warned campaign group Vote Leave that the number lacked "clarity" because it referred only to the UK's gross annual contribution and did not take into account Britain's rebate or money that comes back from the EU.

It went on to rebuke the group for continuing to use the "misleading" figure during the referendum campaign, saying it was "disappointed" by the approach.

Labour's Chuka Umunna, a supporter of Open Britain, a group campaigning for a soft Brexit, said: "Yet again Boris' outright lying has been exposed by Britain's statistics watchdog. The £350m figure was simply wrong during the referendum campaign, and it's wrong now.

"Boris' hard Brexit plans will mean less money for our NHS, not more. The IFS is forecasting a £58bn hole in the public finances as a direct result of Brexit, which will be paid for in higher taxes and lower NHS spending."

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said he was glad the statistics watchdog had "the courage to slap Boris down".

He added: "Boris' £350m lie has been exposed yet again. He knows an extreme Brexit would damage the economy and mean less cash for the NHS.

"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 (Prime Minister) Theresa May."

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