AP FACT CHECK: UK leadership contenders make wild promises
LONDON (AP) — Promises have been flying thick and fast in Britain’s Conservative leadership race, ranging from the plausible to the wild.
Contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt both say they will break the country’s political deadlock over Brexit, take Britain out of the European Union, boost the economy and bring a divided country back together.
Next week, one of the two will be declared winner of a contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and will take over as Britain’s next prime minister.
A look at how their statements stack up to reality:
The leadership contest has been dominated by Britain’s delayed departure from the EU. Long scheduled for March 29, it was postponed to Oct. 31 after Parliament repeatedly rejected May’s divorce agreement with the bloc.
Both Johnson and Hunt say they will take Britain out of the EU within months. Hunt would be willing to accept a short further postponement if a deal is in sight; Johnson insists there can be no delay beyond Oct. 31.
JOHNSON: “We are getting ready to come out on October 31st, come what may ... Do or die.”
THE FACTS: Britain is probably leaving the EU on Halloween, but it’s far from certain. By law, Britain will cease to be a member of the EU on Oct. 31 unless it gets another extension or revokes the decision to leave. But there are several scenarios in which Brexit might not happen on time.
A majority of U.K. lawmakers oppose leaving without a deal, and will try to stop it. They could pass a law ordering the government to seek an extension, try to topple the government so an election must be held or call a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership. EU leaders say they could agree to delay Brexit again if Britain is holding an election or a referendum.
A BETTER BREXIT DEAL
Hunt and Johnson say they can get an altered agreement that Parliament will support. Johnson says this involves retaining “the best bits” of May’s withdrawal agreement and discarding the rest.
HUNT: “There is a deal to be done.”
JOHNSON: “We will get a deal by Oct. 31.”
THE FACTS: The EU insists May’s rejected Brexit deal is the only one on offer. Leaders across the bloc have repeatedly said they won’t reopen the legally binding withdrawal agreement struck with May after a year and a half of negotiations. Outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated last month that the bloc agreed “unanimously that there will be no renegotiating of the withdrawal agreement.”
THE IRISH BORDER
The main obstacle to Parliament backing May’s EU divorce deal was a provision known as the backstop, intended to keep an open Irish border after Brexit. An invisible border is crucial to the regional economy, and also underpins the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
The backstop is loathed by British Brexit supporters because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks — something they say will stop the U.K. from striking new trade deals around the world.
Hunt and Johnson both argue they can scrap the backstop but still keep the border open. Hunt says the frontier can be kept free of customs checks through “a technology-led solution.” Johnson wants to sort out border arrangements after Britain leaves the EU, during negotiations on a future free-trade deal.
HUNT: “The backstop, as it is, is dead.”
THE FACTS: The statements seem like wishful thinking. EU leaders are firm: without the backstop there can be no withdrawal agreement. Ursula von der Leyen, the newly confirmed head of the European Commission who will replace Juncker, says “the backstop is of utmost importance.”
Details of border arrangements can’t be finalized during post-Brexit trade negotiations precisely because the backstop is intended as an insurance policy in case those talks fail to find a solution to the issue. The EU and Britain have set up a working group to explore potential technological solutions, but most experts say they are years away from fruition.
Johnson and Hunt both say if they can’t quickly secure a better deal, they are prepared to leave the EU without an agreement on divorce terms and the outline of future relations. Hunt says he’d do it with a “heavy heart” because there would be a serious economic cost. Johnson, however, says that if Britain prepares properly, leaving without a deal would be “vanishingly inexpensive.”
HUNT: “If the only way to leave the EU was without a deal we should do that and we would make a success of it.”
JOHNSON: “We can minimize the cost of Brexit under any circumstances and we can turn it into a fantastic opportunity.”
THE FACTS: A no-deal Brexit will have a big economic impact on the EU — and especially on the U.K. It would mean the instant imposition of tariffs on goods between Britain and the EU, which accounts for almost half of U.K. trade, and confusion and red tape as long-standing regulations and arrangements vanish.
Most economists say this would plunge Britain into recession. The British government’s own estimate says the economy will be between 6% to 9% smaller over 15 years than it otherwise would have been. In the short term, there could be logjams at borders, shortages of goods and price rises as the pound slumps against the U.S. dollar.
Deal or no deal, both candidates are promising a spending spree to boost the British economy and give workers some relief after a decade of austerity. Johnson says he will cut income taxes for higher earners, reduce the social security contribution burden on low-paid workers and give public-sector employees a pay raise. Hunt promises to slash corporation tax to 12.5% from the current 19% and increase military spending from 2% to 2.5% of GDP.
HUNT: “The Republic of Ireland cut their corporation tax to 12.5%; that’s what I want to do.”
JOHNSON: “There should be creative ambiguity about when and how (Britain’s Brexit bill) gets paid.”
THE FACTS: The promises add up to billions of pounds, and it’s unclear where the money will come from.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent think tank, says Johnson’s tax pledges will cost 20 billion pounds ($25 billion), Hunt’s corporation tax cut will cost 13 billion pounds a year and his defense pledge 15 billion pounds a year by 2024.
Asked how they will pay for it, the candidates have pointed to the 26 billion pounds of “fiscal headroom” set aside by the Treasury for a no-deal Brexit that will become available if there is an orderly exit. Treasury chief Philip Hammond has warned that the 26 billion pounds, which is not money in the Treasury’s coffers, but wiggle room in borrowing, will be eaten up dealing with the economic fallout if there is not a Brexit deal.
Johnson has also said he could refuse to pay the 39-billion-pound Brexit bill to the EU agreed upon by May’s British government. But that bill covers spending commitments Britain made before voting to leave the EU, and to which it may well be legally bound in any circumstances.
JOHNSON, a former mayor of London: “Crime went down roughly 20% when I was mayor.”
HUNT, a former health secretary: “I was able to get 20 billion pounds for the (National Health Service), the biggest-ever increase.”
THE FACTS: Johnson is broadly right about crime, though it’s debatable how much credit he can take for it. Crime in London fell by about 20% during his period in office between 2008 and 2016, but also fell by 23% across England and Wales as a whole. He also claims murders fell by “about 50%.”
London’s homicide rate had been falling for five years when Johnson became mayor and declined even further, from 163 killings in 2007-2008 to 109 in 2015-2016 — a fall of 33%.
Hunt is right that last year the government boosted spending for the health service by 3.4% a year in real terms for five years, meaning its budget will be 20 billion pounds higher by 2024 — but not right away. The increase is also lower than the average over the past half century of 4.1% a year.
Follow AP’s full coverage of Brexit and the Conservative Party leadership race at: https://www.apnews.com/Brexit