The leave campaign made three key promises – are they keeping them?

The Vote Leave campaign made at least three key promises that were the basis of their victory. But since Thursday night leading figures appear to have played down their status.

As Iain Duncan Smith said on Sunday: “Our promises were a series of possibilities.” So what is their status now?

1. ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350m the EU takes every week’

This promise was so central to the leave campaign that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove repeatedly appeared on platforms with it as their main backdrop. Indeed, it was famously painted on the side of their battlebus that toured Britain.

It was first made by the Labour MP and co-chair of Vote Leave, Gisela Stuart, at the beginning of the campaign: “Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I’d rather that we control how to spend that money, and if I had that control I would spend it on the NHS,” she said on 15 April.

The £350m figure was immediately the subject of dispute. It was pointed out that it was the gross figure for the UK contribution. The £74m a week UK rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher is never sent to Brussels, which brings the figure down to £276m a week.

That £276m figure includes £115m spent on things such as support for farmers, aid payments to British regions and research by UK universities and companies. If those payments continue – and there have been immediate demands from, for example, Cornwall, that they must – then at the very most it would leave £161m to be diverted to the NHS.

Two weeks before the vote, Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, criticised it in the strongest terms: “As we have made clear, the UK’s contribution to the EU is paid after the application of the rebate. We have also pointed out that there are payments received by the UK public and private sectors that are relevant here. The continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics,” he said.

The battlebus was repainted. On Friday, Nigel Farage was the first to disown the pledge. “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,” the Ukip leader said.

When it was pointed out that Vote Leave emblazoned the £350m claim on to the side of a bus and drove it around the country, Farage said: “It wasn’t one of my adverts, I can assure you. I think they made a mistake in doing that.” Farage was part of the rival Leave.eu campaign.

On Sunday, Iain Duncan Smith, who was part of Vote Leave, also claimed he had never said the NHS would get £350m a week – despite being repeatedly photographed in front of the bus.

Verdict: Promise dropped

2. ‘A vote for leave will be a vote to cut immigration’

When the near-record net migration figure of 333,000 was published on 26 May, Johnson said he was pro-immigration but the figure showed there was “no public consent for the scale of immigration we are seeing” and the situation was “completely out of control”.

He added: “I think that they [the figures] show the scandal of the promise made by politicians repeatedly that they could cut immigration to the tens of thousands and then to throw their hands up in the air and say there’s nothing we can do because Brussels has taken away our control of immigration.”

Interestingly, on 3 March last year Farage announced that Ukip was dropping its policy of limiting immigration for work to 50,000 a year. Instead, he wanted to see it returned to “normal levels” that were seen in the period from 1950 to the 1990s, when more people left Britain than came here each year.

Coupled with Ukip’s “breaking point” poster featuring a column of Syrian refugees, it was not surprising that many voters believed the leave campaign was promising deep cuts in immigration. Ipsos Mori found that immigration rather than the economy was the main concern of voters in the last two weeks of the campaign.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan tells BBC Newsnight that free movement of labour might not end

It was therefore something of a surprise when leading Tory Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan told BBC Newsnight that the leave campaign had never promised to cut immigration numbers and that the “free movement of workers to and from the UK should continue to ensure Britain remained within the single market”.

But it is quite true that the leave campaign and Ukip never committed to any new target to replace David Cameron’s failed pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. The key joint statement on immigration signed by Johnson, Gove, Stuart and Priti Patel was careful to stress that they wanted to bring immigration under control. Instead they promised to introduce by the next general election Ukip’s policy of an Australian-style points based-system, saying the automatic right of EU citizens to come and work in Britain would come to an end.

Duncan Smith denied on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday the charge that leave was guilty of misleading the electorate on immigration. He said they had been elected on the Conservative general election pledge to cut numbers to the “tens of thousands” and that still applied.

But Johnson appeared to downplay that on Monday, writing in the Telegraph: “It is said that those who voted leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration. I do not believe that is so.” This allowed him to argue for Britons still to be able to work in the EU and for access to the single market. The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said on Sunday it was not possible to “negotiate control of migration from the EU and at the same time [have] full access to the single market. There has to be a trade-off,” adding that the leave campaign had made “contradictory” and “mutually incompatible” promises to the British people.

Verdict: It’s complicated. Leave and Ukip left a clear impression they would cut immigration, but their policy statements were careful only to promise to bring it under control. Duncan Smith’s claim to still support the net migration target of below 100,000 is not operable in leave’s terms while Britain remains in the EU.

3. ‘Five million more migrants could enter Britain by 2030 if Turkey and four other applicant countries join the EU’

The claim that Turkey, with its population of 78 million, was close to joining the EU formed the main plank of Gove’s successful Brexit fightback when the leave campaign was drowning in a sea of remain economic warnings. He said that the EU had responded to the migration crisis with a “free-for-all” invitation to Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and Turkey to join.

David Cameron and Robert Peston


David Cameron tells Robert Peston the leave campaign had made misleading claims regarding Turkey’s EU membership. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

The leave campaign backed this up with a leaked Foreign Office memo about a small diplomatic unit said to be helping Turkey’s application. Cameron responded by arguing that on the current rate of progress Turkey was unlikely to join until the year 3000. He said agreement had only been reached on one out of the 35 chapters.

Leave did not withdraw the claim and even highlighted it on its final campaign leaflet, which implied that it would open the door to Syrian and Iraqi migration as well.

On Wednesday, the argument went full circle when the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, suggested he may hold a referendum to see whether Turkey should continue with its EU application: “We can stand up and ask the people just like the British are doing,” he said.

Verdict: Turkey was first promised EU membership in 1963 and is a candidate to join the EU, but this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Finally, with the leavers backing away from some of their campaign promises and statements, can the EU referendum result legally be declared invalid?

No. While legal action can follow in the case of a commercial contract or the public floatation of a company if false statements are made in, there is no advertising code that requires political statements to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

This weekend Twitter exchange I had at the weekend sums up the situation:

— Jane Collins MEP (@Jane_CollinsMEP)
June 25, 2016

@alantravis40 £350m a week was not a @ukip statistic and the UK hasn’t even started the process yet. Jeez – you lost. Get over it.

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