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Brexit: The Biggest Claims From The Remain And Leave Campaigns That Never Happened

Both sides made claims that haven't stood the test of time

10 min read

Five years on from the historic vote to leave the European Union, PoliticsHome takes you through the key dramatic claims from each camp that never came to pass.


£350m A Week For The NHS

One of the most enduring images of the Brexit campaign was the slogan: "We send the EU £350 million a week – let's fund our NHS instead" emblazoned on the side of the Vote Leave campaign’s bus.

It was a major plank of the Brexiteers campaign, and became a frequent talking point during debates. 

Even after the referendum was finished, some Brexiteers, including then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson continued to claim the figure was correct, writing in late 2017 that "once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week".

While debate flared during the campaign, the slogan was accepted by many as truthful, despite the situation being more complicated.According to fact checkers, the figure was the UK’s total gross contribution to the EU, but did not take into account the £74m-a-week rebate which had been negotiated by Margaret Thatcher, or the cash the UK received in return from EU funded programmes.

Weeks before the vote, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, said the claims were “misleading” and “undermines trust” in official statistics.

In the days following the campaign, many prominent Brexiteers distanced themselves from the pledge, including Nigel Farage, who had led the rival Leave.EU campaign.

Senior Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith also denied ever having made the pledge, despite numerous photographs of him standing in-front of the battle bus with the slogan.

Ultimately, then-Prime Minister Theresa May did offer a boost to NHS funds in the wake of the vote, but the funding did not come from money saved as a result of the decision to leave the EU.


The issue of immigration was a defining feature of debates and Leave campaign materials.

One of the most controversial claims made by Vote Leave was that Turkey was getting closer to joining the EU, and that it would trigger a surge in immigration to the UK.

A poster created by the campaign showed an open door made from a UK passport alongside the phrase "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU".

The claims were amplified by a number of senior Brexiteers, including Boris Johnson, who said at the time: "I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can't imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all.

"That is mad – that won't work."

The poster, which dropped one day before an England v. Turkey football match, came alongside a statement which added that the country’s high birth rate would lead to an “additional million people added to the UK population from Turkey alone within eight years”.

It flagged Turkey’s higher crime rate than the UK and levels of gun ownership, claiming these factors would lead to security threats if they were allowed to join the EU.

In a joint letter to then-Prime Minister David Cameron on 16 June 2016, Johnson joined Michael Gove and Brexit campaigner Gisela Stuart in urging for the UK to confirm it would veto Turkey's bid to join the EU. "If the Government cannot give this guarantee, the public will draw the reasonable conclusion that the only way to avoid having common borders with Turkey is to Vote Leave and take back control on 23 June," it read.

While it is correct that Turkey became an EU candidate state in 1999, there has been little progress in the talks, with some EU member states having already stated they would veto any Turkish membership due to their human rights record, so the suggestion that Turkey was about to join the EU was incorrect. 

Then Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt was accused of lying when she claimed it was "very likely" Turkey would join the EU within eight years. 

Senior Brexiteers sought to distance themselves from the claims not long after polling day.

During the 2019 Tory leadership contest Boris Johnson claimed not to remember his 2016 comments on the matter. “I didn't say anything about Turkey in the referendum campaign," he said. "I didn't say a thing about Turkey."

When accused of using "scare" tactics around Turkey ahead of Brexit polling Johnson added: "Since I made no remarks, I can't disown them."

UK 'Holds All The Cards'

While the debate raged over the positives and negatives of Brexit, the Leave camp made repeated suggestions that striking a post-break deal with the EU would be simple.

The most significant of those came from Michael Gove, who said during a speech at Vote Leave HQ in April 2016: “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want”.

The months and years after polling day would prove that analysis spectacularly wrong. With Brexit dominating the nation's political agenda, parliament was mired in round after round of crunch votes, Commons hijinks, legal challenges and down-to-the-wire summits with the EU, who have consistently played hardball in the deal-making process. The chaos cause in attempting to pass a deal brought down Theresa May's leadership, caused major splits within the Conservative Party and placed the UK and the EU at the real risk of a no-deal exit from the bloc.

In the same speech, Gove had also said the work needed to negotiate the exit and striking new trade deals "wouldn't be any more complicated or onerous" for civil servants than the work they were already conducting.

In reality, a new Brexit department was established, swathes of civil servants were pulled away from their departmental work to focus on Brexit preparations, and billions of pounds were spent preparing the UK for new customs processes.

Gove’s own words would come back to haunt him during the tumultuous years that followed after sectors, including manufacturing and fishing, hit out at him during negotiations when their industries faced potential job losses or new tariffs.


Punishment Budget

One of the biggest arguments made by Remainers was the risk of an immediate economic shock if the UK voted to leave the EU.

As the then-Chancellor, Remainer George Osborne was responsible for dishing out the most significant warnings of potential "financial instability" which would take place in the wake of Brexit.

It culminated in a major set piece speech just days before polling day where he warned the UK would have to fill a £30bn black hole to offset the economic impact.

Dubbed the "punishment budget" by critics, Osborne had suggested the decision to leave would mean major cuts to the NHS, education and defence budgets, while a whole host of tax hikes would also be required.Describing the situation as a "lose-lose situation" for British families, he added: "Far from freeing up money to spend on public services as the leave campaign would like you to believe, quitting the EU would mean less money."

But his comments were leapt on by the opposition, who pointed out his analysis was an unrealistic scenario of the UK exiting the bloc almost immediately after the vote, with Iain Duncan Smith saying the comments were "bizarre", "ridiculous" and "irresponsible". 

In 2017, Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, hit out at the Chancellor for the tactic, saying it was a "ludicrous" threat which had "undermined" the economic arguments for staying in Europe.

Ultimately, Osborne sacked as chancellor following the referendum, while the UK's economy did not face the economic catastrophe in the initial months and years after the Brexit vote which he had predicted. 

Threat To Peace In Europe

While George Osborne ramped up the economic fears, David Cameron made warnings of an entirely different nature.

In the closing months of the campaign, he suggested that the UK's exit from the European Union could threaten peace on the continent.

In May 2016, he gave a speech where he said: "Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?

"I would never be so rash to make that assumption."

The then-PM also raised "pivotal moments” in European history, including Trafalgar, Waterloo and both World Wars and highlighted how Winston Churchill had pushed for closer co-operation in the postwar period.He added: "Whenever we turn our back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it. We have always had to go back in, and always at much higher cost."

But the comments were leapt on by Boris Johnson, who said in response: "People should think very hard before they make these kinds of warnings.

"No, I don't believe that leaving the EU would cause World War Three to break out on the European continent" he added. 

Cameron came under further attack over the comments by the Leave camp who highlighted his previous promise to lead the UK out of the bloc if they refused to offer a new relationship.

While a number of leading security, defence and military figures had warned breaking away could weaken security cooperation between European nations, Cameron's claims were portrayed by the opposition as a further example of "project fear" from the Remain camp.

Ultimately, while some of the issues around crime and security cooperation have proven correct, Cameron's claims about potential conflict on the continent have not.

‘Back Of The Queue’

Comments, claims and interventions by foreign leaders were not an uncommon occurrence during the Brexit referendum campaign, but US President Barack Obama’s was certainly the one with the biggest impact.

In April 2016, during a visit to the UK, Obama made remarks at a press conference where he said Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for any future post-Brexit trade deal with the US.

His extraordinary intervention came with a swipe at the Brexiteer camp, saying he wanted to respond to their claims that signing a new trade deal with the US would be simple."They are voicing an opinion about what the United States is going to do, I figured you might want to hear from the president of the United States what I think the United States is going to do," he said.

"And on that matter, for example, I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done."

He added: "The UK is going to be in the back of the queue."

While the remarks delighted Remainers who saw the intervention as a key argument against the UK's ability to strike third-party trade deals, the Brexit camp reacted with fury at the comments.

They accused Downing Street of arranging the remarks, pointing towards Obama's use of the word "queue" rather than the more typically American "line".

In July 2018, those accusations appeared to be substantiated after ex-White House adviser Ben Rhodes wrote in his memoirs that Obama's team had been in "violent agreement about the negative consequences of Brexit" and that Obama had been asked to make the comment after it had been raised in a previous discussion.Chances for a post-Brexit deal with the US rose significantly under President Trump who claimed he was keen to sign a "very powerful deal" with the UK, but was replaced before negotiations could properly begin.

Now Trump is gone, and while President Biden has already warned any new deal could be held up unless tensions between the UK and the EU over Northern Ireland are resolved, there is no suggestion the UK would be placed at the "back of the queue".

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