- Boris Johnson’s article in the Telegraph (15 September 2017) set out a positive, confident vision of Brexit, but was criticised by some as flying a kite for a leadership bid. A non-paywall version of his article can be found here.
- The article was also criticised for repeating the controversial claim that leaving the EU would free up “£350m pounds a week” which the UK could spend on the NHS.
- This is a distortion of Johnson’s views, similar to the distortion of Philip Hammond’s 30 July Le Monde interview by the BBC. When read honestly, his article, like Hammond’s interview, simply articulates existing Tory policy.
- In general I am no fan of Johnson. But the media’s commentary on Brexit had become too pessimistic, and the government’s too apologetic. It was high time someone reminded people of the upside Brexit offers.
- Johnson’s allegedly controversial comments, rather than contradicting any aspect of Tory Brexit policy, simply establish new “anchors” for the upcoming negotiation, and therefore help Theresa May achieve a successful outcome.
- Johnson’s only crime is to have the audacity to articulate a case for Brexit – the Brexit the British voted for.
“350m a week”? Bloody Boris
On BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme of 17 July 2017, presenter Paddy O’Connell said that “Boris Johnson … promised more money for the NHS outside the EU” (my emphasis). Here is what Johnson actually wrote:
And yes – once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly 350m per week. It would be a fine thing as many of us have pointed out if a lot of that money went on the NHS, provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology. (my emphasis)
O’Connell’s report is a simply outrageous perversion of what Johnson wrote. Johnson has not promised anything here. He speaks, deliberately, in the conditional voice: “It would be a fine thing … if.” Just as the Leave campaign did with its use of “let’s fund our NHS instead” (my emphasis), Johnson presents extra money for the NHS as something that could be done with the money saved from Brussels. There is no “promise” here. Fake news.
The BBC’s fact checking unit for its part objected to the reference to the £350m figure:
Even Sir David Norgrove of the UK’s statistics authority seems to have joined in the outcry, though whether he read Johnson’s article is another matter:
Let’s look again at what Johnson actually said. “We will take back control of” does not mean “we were paying” or “we will be able to spend an extra ….” So Johnson is absolutely correct. The UK didn’t pay £350m a week, but it would have done had its rebate been withdrawn. That rebate is granted to the UK by the EU. The UK has some influence on that rebate, but the EU can withdraw it. It may be unlikely, but who knows? Jean-Claude Junker’s recent state of the union address advocated an EU finance ministry, the possibility of which was ruled out by most Remain supporters during the referendum debate. The rebated money is not extra money the UK can spend, but it is money over which the Brits do not have full “control.” What Johnson said was spot on, and in fact his use of the word “control” was discriminating and well judged. The BBC’s Reality Check team has discredited itself with this intervention, and should “quote check” what people say before attacking a straw horse.
This seems easy to understand. Discussion of Johnson’s article, since this post was first published, showed that the BBC and other Remain supporters struggle so badly with this idea of control that I wrote a dedicated post to explain it to them.
Boris over the cliff
Commentators have interpreted Johnson’s comments as an objection to a transitional arrangement.
None of his article mentions anything about any potential transitional arrangement, as noted by the BBC’s Chris Mason in the headlines to the Today Programme (16 September 2017), in order to imply that Johnson was somehow contradicting the government’s current thinking that such an arrangement might be desirable. But not mentioning a transitional arrangement does not mean ruling it out. Au contraire, it’s the best way to avoid leaving any hostages to fortune regarding the potential negotiation of such a transitional arrangement. Nor does Johnson’s article discuss the trading arrangements the UK may have with the EU. The only thing Johnson says which might be interpreted as a comment on either of these two issues is this short paragraph:
We would not expect to pay for access to their markets any more than they would expect to pay for access to ours.
Again, Johnson is very nuanced here. All that expensive education wasn’t a complete waste. He says “we would not expect to.” He didn’t say, “we absolutely will not under any circumstances.” None of this ties Theresa May’s hands by ruling out any payments in connection with any future deals.
Whatever the case, this remark has nothing whatsoever to do with any transitional deal. Any payment for access is part of the post-transition trading arrangement the UK will have with the EU. Any payments during a transitional deal will not be divorce payments, but ongoing transitional participation payments. They’re two different things.
Drop the anchor
His comment that the UK shouldn’t expect to pay might be taken as a push for a no deal scenario. It might be taken as saying, “we won’t pay a penny, even if that means we get no trade agreement.” Again that is quite incorrect. What Johnson is doing with this subtly worded expectation is what behavioural economists call establishing an “anchor.”
Kahneman and Tversky’s work on “anchoring” (published in “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science, 1974, 185) showed that “when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity … the estimates stay close to the number that people considered” (Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p 119). In Kahneman and Tversky’s terms, the “unknown quantity” Johnson is trying to influence is “how much (if anything) will the UK pay the EU on exit”? When he describes the “anchor” as the “particular value” that people “considered,” Kahneman means the value people encounter or are presented with or shown before answering that question, and which therefore “anchors” the way they arrive at their answer. So if I say to you, “how many marbles are in this jar, 50? 100?” your estimate of the number of marbles is likely to gravitate around the 50-100 range I asked you to consider before arriving at your estimate – which is the anchor. But if I were instead to say “how many marbles are in this jar, 150? 200?” your estimate is likely to gravitate around the 150-200 range because I’ve given you a different anchor. All this irrespective of what the actual number of marbles really is (unless you’re suspicious by nature or have a special talent for marble counting).
The EU has used exactly that tactic by floating the idea of payments of €100bn via sympathetic publications like the Financial Times. The anchoring principle described by Kahneman means that this arbitrary number will influence the amount of Euros that end up in the EU’s piggy bank in Brussels, just as the number of marbles I quote might influence your guess as to how many are in the marble jar. Johnson, by saying the UK would not expect to pay anything, has fought back against the EU’s strong arm tactics and tried to establish a new anchor: “how many Euros will end up in the EU’s jar? Zero?” Anyone paying taxes in the UK should be grateful for this anchor of Johnson’s, as it is they who will end up paying the divorce bill (if there is one).
Only one captain on board
Many have conjectured that this article is an attempt by Johnson to take over as Prime Minister. I really don’t see how he can believe this is possible, given the self-indicting manner in which he ruled himself out of the race in 2016. Johnson’s article is, rather, a fight back against the influence of Remainers like Amber Rudd, who have been allowed too much influence over Brexit. It is disruptive, but it is disrupting the attempt by Remainers to water down Brexit. As I wrote, May, though she might have qualities, is an establishment person through and through. Without unseating her, Johnson and others need to steer her away from a soft Brexit approach to which she is naturally drawn, in spite of her explicit support for clean Brexit.
I have never understood why Boris Johnson is thought to be so charismatic. His speeches are bumbling and awkward, like a Hugh Grant character in a Romantic comedy. His support for foreign intervention in Syria is odious. His description of the benefits cap in London as a form of ethnic cleansing was idiotic hyperbole. A lot of what he says is conventional truisms disguised as grand rhetoric. I don’t like him any more than the sneaky neocon Remoaner Philip Hammond.
But, just as with Hammond, that doesn’t give me or anyone the right to lie about what he’s said. In fact, the Telegraph article is, for the most part, eloquent and well judged. It gives a positive articulation of the upside from Brexit. The Remain supporting media, the EU and Remoaner politicians in the UK have been relentless in warning about potential pitfalls and downsides. But there is risk in every decision. What Johnson has done is given an intelligent and detailed picture of the potential rewards. Establishing a new anchor in the discussion of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is only a prelude to the UK raising anchor and setting sail for a brighter future.
The BBC’s Leila Nathoo commented on the Today programme: “it’s very hard not to read this as a rival interpretation, Boris Johnson getting in there first” ahead of Theresa May’s speech in Florence. Rival with what? Nothing Johnson says contradicts any of May’s Lancaster House vision for Brexit. The only thing it contradicts are the soft Brexit options supported by Remainers like Amber Rudd and the BBC (as demonstrated in my Philip Hammond blog and in future posts). That is why Rudd has criticised it and the BBC presented it as disruptive and controversial.
Amber Rudd and the BBC are entitled to their opinions. But Theresa May has to implement the Brexit voted for by the people she serves. If she sticks to that Brexit in her speech in Florence, Boris Johnson’s article will provide her with the perfect warm up act.