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Boris Johnson’s Brexit funding claims and why they caused Tory infighting

The Foreign Secretary is making headlines once again.

Boris Johnson has triggered a round of Tory infighting and a spat with the country’s statistics watchdog after setting out his vision for Brexit.What has the Foreign Secretary said?

(Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Mr Johnson used a 4,000-word essay in The Daily Telegraph to revive the widely criticised claim that quitting the European Union would allow the UK to take back control of £350 million a week, some of which could be used to boost NHS funding. He also warned against paying for access to European markets after Brexit and said continued membership of the single market and customs union would make a “complete mockery” of the referendum result.

Why did he write the article?
(Mary Turner/PA)

The Foreign Secretary was one of the key figures in the Leave campaign and his piece was an attempt to show optimism about the Brexit process, to insist that “this country will succeed in our new national enterprise, and will succeed mightily”. But eyebrows were raised by the timing of the article – less than a week before Theresa May makes a major speech on the subject and with the Conservative Party conference next month – and the fact it strayed well beyond his foreign affairs brief. It has fuelled speculation the piece is an attempt to burnish Mr Johnson’s leadership credentials.

What has the reaction been?

Cabinet colleague Amber Rudd accused him of “backseat driving”. Defence minister Tobias Ellwood said there was discord in the party at a time when “poise, purpose and unity are called for”. However, Mr Johnson’s intervention delighted some of his fellow Brexiteers. Nadine Dorries said the “beautiful” article was a “sunny, optimistic vision of Britain following Brexit”.

What about that £350 million claim?
(PA graphic)

The figure, emblazoned on the big, red campaign bus used by Vote Leave during the referendum, retains its ability to cause controversy. Brexiteers claim the figure represents the amount of money the UK does not have control over as a result of EU membership, but it does not include the rebate or take into account any funding that flows back from Brussels. The revival of the £350 million claim led to a rebuke from UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir David Norgrove, who said it was a “clear misuse” of official figures.

Was it a mistake for Mr Johnson to use this figure?

As Oscar Wilde wrote, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. Mr Johnson would have known the £350 million figure, linked to using the money on the NHS instead, guarantees headlines. Vote Leave persisted in making the claim after being similarly rebuked by the statistics watchdog because it meant the focus was on the cost of EU membership, even if the exact sum was disputed. A slap on the wrist from Sir David is a small price to pay for Mr Johnson to shift the debate back to one of the key planks of the argument for leaving the bloc.

So, what next?
(Leon Neal/PA)

Both Mr Johnson and Mrs May will be in New York this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly and the pair are expected to have crunch talks about the Foreign Secretary’s intervention. The Prime Minister will then deliver her big speech on Brexit in Florence on Friday – which will be keenly scrutinised both in Westminster and Brussels.

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