Brexit: Michael Gove clings on to Vote Leave's discredited £350m NHS claim

The former Cabinet minister said the public should question the opinions of experts 

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Wednesday 28 December 2016 12:48
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Michael Gove
Michael Gove

Michael Gove has stoked Brexit anger after arguing that the discredited claim that leaving the EU would mean £350m-a-week more for the NHS is still trustworthy.

The ex-cabinet minister, who fell from grace during the Tory leadership contest, claimed the argument was still robust as the sum of money could be spent by a future government if it chose to.

The £350m claim was emblazoned across the side of the Vote Leave bus, but came to symbolise the slippery nature of the Brexit debate after the chair of the UK Statistics Authority branded it "misleading". Even Ukip’s Nigel Farage called it a "mistake".

But on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Gove was speaking on the role of experts in public debate when he was challenged over the veracity of £350m claim - which was repeatedly called out by experts.

He said: "Well that was a prediction. We can replay, I’m always happy to replay, the argument about £350m, because the figures are there.

"These are sums of money that come from the British taxpayer and go to the European Union."

He added: "We haven’t left the European Union yet, let’s wait to see…the money is there and it’s for the Government to decide how to spend it once we leave.

"People can look back at this year and say there are all sorts of things that they found uncomfortable and disconcerting, but we had an open public debate in this country, and as a result of that, the decision was taken on the basis of the quality of the argument, rather than the regal authority of the person making it."

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Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, described the claim as potentially misleading in correspondence with Vote Leave, but when they continued to use it he said he was disappointed and that it was "misleading and undermines trust in official statistics".

Mr Farage, who was at the forefront of the rival Leave.EU campaign, was asked about the claim after the referendum and said: "No I can’t [guarantee it], and I would never have made that claim. That was one of the mistakes that I think the Leave campaign made."

Without a hint of irony, Mr Gove said during the BBC radio show that the public should not trust "experts" but should instead interrogate their claims and demand to see evidence.

He added: "Sometimes we're invited to take experts as though they were prophets, as though their words were carved in tablets of stone and that we had to simply meekly bow down before them and accept their verdict.

"I think the right response in a democracy to assertions made by experts is to say 'show us the evidence, show us the facts'.

"And then, if experts or indeed anyone in the debate can make a strong case, draw on evidence and let us think again, then of course they deserve respect."

He went on to cite an academic study that showed experts in a range of fields were more susceptible to group think, and that other experts besides economists could be treated as more reliable guides for future trends.

He added: "The people I was singling out for scepticism were those such as the economists from organisations like the IMF, who've got big issues like the wisdom of joining the euro wrong in the past.

"The IMF didn't just get the arguments wrong over the single currency, they called the EU referendum wrongly too."

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth tweeted: "Michael Gove on @BBCRadio4 telling us to always ask for evidence. Perhaps he can give us the evidence for his £350 million a week for NHS."

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