Little more than half a year ago, Boris Johnson stood in front of a bus emblazoned with slogans promising extra funds for the NHS. He gave speeches against the backdrop of a sign saying “Let’s give our NHS the £350m the EU takes every week”. And on Wednesday, he voted against an amendment to the Article 50 bill requiring the government to publish figures on what Brexit will mean for NHS spending.
His former ally, Michael Gove, vigorously defended the figure during the referendum campaign, saying “we actually give more than £350 million every week to the EU”. He claimed that he only “argued that £100 million be spent on the NHS”. He accused Labour MP Wes Streeting of being “economical with the actualité”. And then he voted against publishing the figures.
So too did Vote Leave chair and Labour MP Gisela Stuart – despite saying just a week before the Commons vote that she was “very happy” to defend the figure, and “would spend more money on the NHS”.
Amongst the big beasts of Brexit who voted against: Andrea Leadsom, Douglas Carswell, Liam Fox, David Davis, Frank Field, Kate Hoey.
Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s chief strategist, says that without that £350 million figure, his side would have lost the referendum. But ardent Brexiters don’t seem particularly keen to deliver on that pledge, possibly because the £350 million was what might politely be described in the White House as an ‘alternative fact’.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s attempt to bring some clarity to the government’s plans for the public finances wasn’t the only failed amendment. Other proposals – offering the public a vote on the terms of Brexit, protecting the rights of EU citizens resident in Britain, safeguarding the UK’s membership in a nuclear research organisation – also failed. As former SNP leader Alex Salmond noted, the last time a bill passed without any amendment or debate on the third reading “was the Defence of the Realm Act 1914”.
That particular act banned the writing of “reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm”, a position Theresa May – who has bemoaned “every stray word and every hyped up media report” – would probably quite like to enforce. But there, of course, any parallels with a nation of lions led by donkeys must end.
Edited by Bill Emmott