Monday, 27 November 2017

Truth and political advantage

A few days ago, one of the Chancellor’s aides insisted that the much-criticised pledge to provide an extra £350 million a week to the NHS could in fact be met after the UK leaves the EU.  The idea received support from Glyn Davies, the MP for Montgomeryshire, who argued that making that cash available “would totally undermine the most continuing bone of contention”, and by implication the arguments of those of us who feel that the electorate were misled into voting to leave the UK.  I think that they’re both right – it can be done, and it would alleviate a running sore.  But being right isn’t the same as being honest; such a move would be, if anything, even more dishonest than the original pledge.
Firstly, the amount available as a result of leaving the EU isn’t the £350 million a week that is quoted.  It is well-established that that is the gross figure before the UK’s discount.  The net amount is more like £250 million.  So around £100 million needs to be immediately deducted from the claimed £350 million.
Secondly, however, we even get some of that lower figure back for things such as payments to farmers and the development funding which Wales receives.  Any suggestion that the money going to the NHS would be the ‘same’ money which is currently being sent to the EU implicitly assumes that the UK Government would simply cancel all payments to farmers and all regional aid.  If that is not what is being proposed (and I’m fairly sure that it isn’t), then these payments need to be deducted from that £350 million as well.
Thirdly, some of the money which we don’t get back goes on what some like to call the ‘Brussels Eurocrats’.  Now, of course we won’t need to pay for them any more, will we? No, we won’t; but neither can we simply assume that none of them add any value to anything and that we can simply do without them.  The UK will need to employ its own trade negotiators instead of those eurocrats, it will need more staff to deal with customs and borders; it will need its own people to take on all the tasks currently performed collectively by the EU.  Any honest assessment of the amount available for the NHS after Brexit has to deduct all these costs from that infamous £350 million.
Fourthly, there is the misnamed and misunderstood ‘divorce bill’.  In reality, this isn’t a cost of leaving, but a payment of sums to which the UK has already committed.  Whatever the final sum paid (and we don’t know that yet), it amounts to a continuation of part of the membership payments for an agreed period.  It’s the same money, and therefore needs to be deducted from the £350 million a week.
Finally, there is the hardest and vaguest question of all – what is the impact of Brexit on the UK economy and therefore on tax receipts at the Treasury?  This is, ultimately, a matter of opinion and assumption rather than unassailable fact.  If the Brexiteers are right, then in the long term, the benefit to the UK economy will be so great that it will fill the entire gap that I’ve outlined above, with lots of lovely money to spare.  And if they’re wrong, then the reduction in revenues as a result of Brexit also needs to be deducted from that mythical £350 million.  Who’s right?  In the short term, I, like most others, believe that the UK economy will take a hit.  And to the extent that that is true, the amount of that loss in revenue also needs to be deducted from the so-called Brexit bonus, before we can begin to allocate that money to the NHS or anything else.  (In the longer term, I’m less certain – I’ve argued before that I’d have had more time for the Brexiteers’ arguments if they’d been upfront and admitted that there’d be some short term pain for an anticipated longer term gain, but arguing that there would be an immediate gain was always an outright lie.)
So, given that the £350 million a week doesn’t stand up to any sort of objective examination, how can I say that Kwasi Kwarteng is right to argue that the UK Government could decide to put an extra £350 million a week into the NHS after Brexit?  Simply because that decision actually has nothing at all to do with Brexit.  Austerity and debt reduction are political choices, not economic necessities, and the money could be made available by the simple expedient of making different political choices.  It’s ideology, not membership of the EU, which prevents investment in the NHS.  It’s ideology, not economic necessity, which prioritises cuts to services over any increase in taxes or borrowing. 
Presenting the possibility of a £350 million a week additional investment in the NHS as a consequence of Brexit is fundamentally dishonest.  That won’t necessarily stop them doing it, of course.  But I rather suspect that ideology will continue to blind them even to the obvious political advantages of simply adding another big lie to the ones already told.

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