Chris Grayling, the Tory Cabinet member and prominent Brexit campaigner, has said the idea of spending millions a week on the NHS instead of the EU was only “an aspiration” – despite a slogan being written in massive letters on the side of the Vote Leave battle bus suggesting £350 million a week could be diverted from the EU to the NHS.
Mr Grayling told ITV's Good Morning Britain that Vote Leave had only ever suggested spending £100 million a week on the NHS.
He insisted: "The specific proposal by the Vote Leave campaign was in fact to spend £100 million a week of that on the NHS. I hope that aspiration will be met."
Mr Grayling’s remarks to Good Morning Britain came despite the Leave Campaign spending weeks touring the country in a bus emblazoned with the slogan: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave.”
The Brexiteers continued using the slogan despite Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, saying it was misleading and undermined trust in official statistics. They also stuck with it after the Institute of Fiscal Studies called the claim “absurd”.
During the EU Referendum campaign, many others also said it was untrue that a post-Brexit Britain would have £350 million a week available to spend on the NHS.
They explained that the £350 million a week claim failed to make clear that the UK gets money back from the EU in the form of a rebate and also in terms of cash given by Europe to other UK public and non-public sector bodies.
The net spend on the EU, they said, was therefore significantly less than £350 million a week, so there wouldn’t be that amount available to spend on the NHS in the event of Brexit.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon even accused Vote Leave leader Boris Johnson of misleading the public by “driving around the country in a bus with a giant whopper painted on the side”.
But the Vote Leave campaign kept repeating the £350 million claim.
Mr Grayling’s apparent climbdown on the £350 million issue comes after Nigel Farage distanced himself from the figure within hours of Brexit’s victory being announced.
Asked whether he could guarantee that £350 million a week would now go to the NHS, Mr Farage, who ran a separate campaign to Vote Leave, replied: “No I can't, and I would never have made that claim. It was one of the mistakes the Leave campaign made."
Mr Grayling’s comments also came after other Vote Leave campaigners distanced themselves from claims about reducing immigration.
Hours after the Brexit victory, Conservative Daniel Hannan told an incredulous Evan Davis on Newsnight: “We never said there was going to be some radical decline [in immigration]. We want a measure of control.”
Mr Hannan suggested that Britain could have a Norway-style relationship with the EU where the UK retained access to the single market in return for continuing to allow the free movement of labour.
When Mr Davis suggested that Leave supporters had been led to believe they had voted for an end to free movement, Mr Hannan insisted the Leave campaign had been about removing “legal entitlements to live in other countries, to vote in other countries, and to claim welfare.”
Allegations of confusion were further fuelled by the fact that Mr Grayling appeared on Good Morning Britain shortly after he was accused on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme of having no worked-out plan for what Britain should do now.
Describing Monday morning’s forthcoming Cabinet meeting, Mr Grayling, the Leader of the House of Commons, said: “We will start work on preparations, work on establishing teams. There needs, while we are electing a new Prime Minister, to be a detailed plan put in place for how we are going to handle all of this.”
Presenter Nick Robinson then asked: “You will start work on establishing the team to draw up a plan … So we have taken the biggest political, economic and diplomatic decision in this country arguably for half a century and the Government is going to start work on who might one day tell us what is going to happen next?”
Mr Grayling insisted: “No, we have got a very clear view of what needs to happen. There has already been thinking done by the Civil Service and the Bank of England and other organisations.
“I am pretty clear in my own mind where we need to end up. We need a free trade agreement with the EU which allows us to control the flow of people into and out of the country.”
When Mr Robinson pointed out that Boris Johnson has been talking about gaining access to the single market, which until now has entailed accepting the free movement of people, Mr Grayling insisted: “The single market is a phrase.”
He was, he said, confident British companies would continue to be able to sell goods and services tariff-free in the EU.
“We sell around the world even in places where we have no trade agreements, and within the European Union we are their biggest customer. We have a massive trade deficit with the EU. We have already had the German CBI saying very clearly they want current trading arrangements to remain in place because it is in their interests.”
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