Johnson’s broken referendum promises – there were loads

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 21.11.2019

Vote Leave and Boris Johnson won the 2016 referendum by promising voters they would deliver the world’s best trade deal. More money for the NHS, frictionless trade with Europe, and everything sorted in a treaty before the next election in 2020 – we were told we could have the lot. We kept a list of everything they offered. 

Of the 19 top promises Boris Johnson and his campaign made 14 have been broken, including promises to get a deal done by 2020, strike new trade agreements around the world, avoid economic disruption, and cut immigration. For one other, the picture is mixed. Just four have been unambiguously kept, and one of those – keeping the Irish border open – was kept by breaking another promise to maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. 

1. More money for the NHS

“After we Vote Leave on 23 June, the Government should use some of the billions saved from leaving the EU to give at least a £100 million per week cash transfusion to the NHS.” – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Gisela Stuart

While the government has promised to spend more on the NHS, that money hasn’t come from a Brexit dividend; all credible research shows that Brexit will leave a big hole in the government’s finances. The new money for the NHS is money we could have spent in the EU – which would also have left us more to spend on our other priorities. 

Verdict: Broken

2. More money for farmers

“The UK government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support – or perhaps even more – as they get now.” – George Eustice, former Minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment

Far from giving farmers a cash boost the government is looking ahead to 2022, when it plans to install a new subsidy system tied to the delivery of certain objectives. The National Audit Office says that “we don’t know what the government is going to pay for, and we don’t know how much they’ll pay… farmers aren’t in a position to be able to plan for the future”.

Verdict: Broken

3. More money for scientists

“If we Vote Leave, we will be able to increase funding to science and still save billions” – Vote Leave

At present, the government is committing to matching lost EU funding, including for scientists who miss out on applications, and is announcing some small funds for new projects. Things appear to be more at a standstill than pointing to a significant increase.

Verdict: Mixed

4. More money in your pocket

“Wages will be higher for working people outside the EU… because pay will no longer be undercut by uncontrolled migration.” – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Gisela Stuart

Boris Johnson has backed down on his pledge to reduce immigration as prime minister. Luckily for him, the evidence linking migration to wages is weak. Less fortunately, the government’s own estimates see real wages falling in every Brexit outcome

Verdict: Broken

5. And scrapping VAT on fuel bills and tampons

“After we Vote Leave… We will need a carefully managed negotiation process and some major legislative changes before 2020, including taking real steps… to abolish VAT on fuel and tampons” – Chris Grayling

The UK hasn’t left the EU, so scrapping VAT on these items outright is not yet possible. Equally, the Vote Leave alumni in government certainly won’t do so before next year, or indeed the end of the transition period. Meanwhile, the European Union has tabled proposals for overhauling VAT rules – raising the distinct possibility that tampons might be zero-rated in Brussels at about the same time they are in London.

Verdict: Broken

6. No EU beneficiaries worse off

“There is more than enough money to ensure that those who now get funding from the EU – including universities, scientists, family farmers, regional funds, cultural organisations and others – will continue to do so… We will continue to fund EU programmes in the UK until 2020” – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Priti Patel (amongst other signatories)

The government is promising to maintain EU funding until the end of 2020, when the EU’s current financial framework expires. But once that period ends, there isn’t a ready alternative in place for programmes including regional funds. 

Verdict: Kept, for now

7. And no short-term economic disruption

“After we Vote Leave, there won’t be a sudden change that disrupts the economy.” – Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Michael Gove

The last three years have seen GDP growth slow, productivity stagnate and the pound plummet, while foreign investment in British businesses fell dramatically. 

Verdict: Broken

8. We’ll get brand new trade deals all over the world

“We would immediately be able to start negotiating new trade deals… which could enter into force immediately after the UK leaves the EU” – Chris Grayling

The EU has roughly 40 trade deals. The UK has managed to roll over 15 of these, but has already declared that deals with Japan and Turkey won’t be ready in time for departure. Far from buccaneering free trade around the world, we haven’t even managed to secure a stand-still exit.

Verdict: Broken

9. There’ll be no damage to trade with the EU

“There is a European free trade zone from Iceland to the Russian border and we will be part of it… Britain will have access to the Single Market after we vote leave… The idea that our trade will suffer because we stop imposing terrible rules such as the Clinical Trial Directive is silly.” –  Vote Leave

If Boris Johnson gets his way, the UK will leave the customs union, leave the single market, and trade with the EU on terms similar to those enjoyed by Canada. If he cannot secure agreement on terms, then we will leave without a deal and trade with the EU on WTO terms. Both of these would be a big downgrade from our current status, forcing businesses to fill out swathes of paperwork to export to the bloc. 

Verdict: Broken

10. Or our co-operation with the EU

“We will negotiate a UK-EU Treaty that enables us 1) to continue co-operating in many areas just as now (e.g. maritime surveillance), 2) to deepen co-operation in some areas (e.g. scientific collaborations and counter-terrorism)” – Vote Leave

The political declaration attached to Boris Johnson’s deal makes it very clear that co-operation between the UK and the EU will be shallower in many areas. The best-case scenarios for many sectors is the UK getting third party access to EU agencies – losing voting rights, paying for the privilege, and respecting the EU court’s remit. 

Verdict: Broken

11. Guaranteed in a treaty which we’ll sort out before 2020

“It will be possible to negotiate a new settlement with the EU, including a UK-EU free trade deal, by the next general election in May 2020” – Vote Leave, 2016

It’s been three and a half years, two prime ministers, and one general election since June 23 2016. The withdrawal agreement that Johnson cobbled together at the last minute is so far just a proposal; talks on a free trade deal are still a blur on the horizon.

Even if Johnson wins a big majority, he won’t be able to pass his deal until February at the earliest. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell he can even establish an agreed outline of a full free trade agreement with the EU in the three months left after that. 

Verdict: Broken

12. Which won’t have any obligation to follow EU laws

“The supremacy of EU law and the jurisdiction of the European Court over the UK will come to an end” – Vote Leave

Boris Johnson’s deal leaves laws being made for Northern Ireland by the European Union, and interpreted by the European Court of Justice. What’s more, the Commission will in some cases have the power to strike down laws in the rest of the UK if they breach EU state aid rules.

Verdict: Broken

13. We’ll cut immigration

“I wouldn’t set a time limit for it but the ambition would be to bring it down to tens of thousands.” – Michael Gove

While Vote Leave promised the country that leaving the EU would see us meet Cameron’s aspiration for net migration to return to the tens of thousands, we’ve now missed that target 37 times in a row. Johnson’s first act as PM was to drop it altogether

Verdict: Broken

14.  With a new system in place by 2020

“By the next general election, we will create a genuine Australian-style points based immigration system.” – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Gisela Stuart

Not only has this not been achieved:the UK has agreed a transition period in the Brexit deal which would see the current free movement regime stay in place up to the end of 2020, and potentially another two years if Boris Johnson agrees to an extension. While the government might achieve this goal in the future, there’s very little prospect of doing so by Priti Patel’s own deadline.

Verdict: Broken

15. That doesn’t favour EU citizens

“Those seeking entry for work or study should be admitted on the basis of their skills without discrimination on the ground of nationality.” – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Gisela Stuart

“[We will introduce a bill to] end the automatic right of all EU citizens to enter the UK by the next election” – Vote Leave

The government will have to keep free movement in place until the end of the transition period. That could be anywhere from December 2020 to the end of 2022, depending on whether Boris Johnson agrees an extension. While it plans to introduce a points-based system that doesn’t ‘favour’ Europeans in the long run, the automatic right of EU citizens to enter the UK will not end by next May.

Verdict: Broken

16. But which gives Irish citizens total free access

“The right of Irish citizens to enter, reside and work in the UK is already enshrined in our law. This will be entirely unaffected by a vote to leave on 23 June.” – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Gisela Stuart

Finally, some unalloyed good news. The Common Travel Area is going nowhere, largely because it would have taken an impressive failure of diplomacy to get rid of it.

Verdict: Kept

17. And stronger border controls

“There is one absolutely clear-cut dividend from leaving the EU. That is our ability to regain control of our borders, including far stronger powers over who we can deport, and proper preventative checks at the border.” – Dominic Raab

The UK is planning to introduce a range of border checks after the transition period, including an Electronic Travel Authorisation scheme addressing security concerns. While we await with interest the Home Office’s successful and rapid implementation of a new and complex system, the government does at least seem to intend to meet this pledge.

Verdict: Kept, for now

18. But no controls on the Northern Irish land border with the EU

“There will be no change to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.” – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Gisela Stuart

There will be no change to the Northern Irish border because the prime minister has broken his pledge to the Northern Irish people that they will remain an essential part of the United Kingdom. In order to get a quick deal Boris Johnson has surrendered to the Brussels demand for an internal border within the UK instead. 

This turns Northern Ireland into an EU colony rather than an integral part of the UK. Laws will be made for Belfast by Dublin and the EU with no input from Westminster;the European Court will tell the British government what Northern Irish businesses can do;the Irish border will be kept open so that Republicans can feel like they’re in a single country with the South; and Unionists will be divided from the rest of their nation.

Verdict: Kept by breaking another promise

19. And the union with Scotland will be stronger than ever

“If we vote to leave then I think the union will be stronger…  I think when we vote to leave it will be clear that having voted to leave one union the last thing people in Scotland wanted to do is to break up another.” – Michael Gove

While the logical case for unionism might be strengthened by Brexit, the emotional case is not. Some polls have found that a majority of Scots would now vote to leave the union, and that Scots believe Brexit strengthens the case for independence. While reading too much into individual polls is unwise, it’s certainly not the case that Brexit has strengthened the union; voters in both Northern Ireland and Scotland think it makes a departure more likely.

Verdict: Broken

Edited by Andrew Gowers