Vote Leave has defection as doctor deserts campaign over NHS

Senior Conservative MP cites ‘background economy’ affecting UK health service

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who has defected from the Leave camp over NHS financing. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who has defected from the Leave camp over NHS financing. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

 

A senior Tory MP has abandoned the Leave campaign in the first major political defection of the referendum debate.

The move by Sarah Wollaston, a doctor and chairwoman of the Commons health select committee, is a blow for the credibility of Vote Leave, which has argued that leaving the EU would free up funds for the National Health Service.

“I have to ask myself if the NHS is going to be better off or worse off,” she told the BBC. “Undoubtedly, the thing that is most going to influence the financial health of the NHS is the background economy. So I think there would be a shock.”

Ms Wollaston had previously voiced concerns about Vote Leave’s claim that Britain contributes more than £350 million (€447 million) a week to the EU, which could be invested instead in the NHS.

In fact, when the UK’s rebate and receipts from the EU are taken into account, the figure is less than £200 million a week.

Misleading on bus

The £350 million figure, which has been called “misleading” by the UK Statistics Authority, has been daubed on Vote Leave’s campaign bus, which has transported top Tories such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

“I couldn’t have stepped foot on a battle bus that has as the heart of its campaign a figure that I know to be untrue,” Ms Wollaston said on Wednesday.

Prime minister David Cameron praised her “powerful intervention”. But Vote Leave called her decision “bizarre”, adding: “It is disappointing to suddenly see her repeating lines straight from the Remain campaign hymn sheet.”

Both sides of the debate have been criticised over the accuracy of their claims during the campaign.

Remain’s forecasts on the economic impact of Brexit have been greeted sceptically by much of the press, while Vote Leave has come under scrutiny for its posters stating that, “Turkey is joining the EU”.

One Brexiteer told the Financial Times of the Turkey claim, “It’s not true at this time . . . If it said ‘Turkey will join’, that’s probably correct.” Nonetheless, an opinion poll this week showed that, by a narrow margin, voters thought the Remain campaign had been less honest.

Threadbare deal

Ms Wollaston, MP for Totnes in Devon, explained her initial decision to back Brexit in a blog on February 21st. She called Mr Cameron’s renegotiation “a threadbare deal that has highlighted our powerlessness to effect institutional change”.

Asked on Wednesday whether other MPs might also defect from the Leave campaign, she told the BBC, “Of course, and there may be people who go in the other direction.”

Brexiteers have questioned the true allegiance of several MPs backing the Remain campaign. Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary and Tory party leader, said business secretary Sajid Javid had supported Brexit in private, a claim the latter has strongly denied.

Vote Leave also claimed that Sir Alan Duncan, Conservative MP for Rutland, had requested a board position in the Out campaign, before backing Remain.

In a separate development, MPs have rushed through emergency legislation extending the deadline for voters in Britain’s EU referendum to apply to join the electoral register, despite legal threats from Leave campaigners.

In a constitutionally rare move, MPs approved a statutory instrument on Thursday that amended the original legislation that paved the way for the referendum.

The move came after the voter registration website crashed shortly before the original deadline on Tuesday evening. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016