Expect the Brexit spin to start

Readers of this column might recall it complaining about the Tory drive to help “troubled families”.

You remember them: the 120,000 families described by David Cameron as “neighbours from hell”. As we complained at the time, these people did not exist.

The number was the rounding-up of a figure of 117,00 families, an extrapolation by researchers looking at the 2004 Families and Children’s Study.

It found that 2% of families suffered from various hardship markers: no parents in work, living in overcrowded housing or the mother suffering mental health problems. Criminality never came into it, and nor did their neighbouring skills.

Iain Duncan Smith came up with the 120,000 figure, out of his head so to speak, and families with internal problems became something more sinister.

Eventually money appeared at a local level, so you might figure that even though the figures were exaggerated and the criminality invented, at least some good might came of it. You’d be wrong.

The Public Accounts Committee recently said that claims that the project had turned around the lives of “99% of England’s most troubled families” were misleading. It also said the Government had “overstated” the financial benefits of the scheme when it claimed it had saved taxpayers £1.2bn.

Given that it was an invented problem based on extrapolated figures that were 10 years out of date, this should come as no surprise.

We raise this again for several reasons, not least that it was an interesting example of how spin buries the facts.

The first time we wrote about it, the source material from the original study was easy to find. Six months later, after Cameron had talked about “neighbours from hell” it was all but impossible, buried under hundreds of tabloids stories reporting Cameron’s words. The truth was out there, but you’d have to know where it was to find it.

We also suspect we’re about to see a similar spin campaign over Brexit and its economic effects.

Before you Brexiters reach for your pens: the referendum was about sovereignty, not finance. No-one doubted that Brexit would be bad for the economy.

The Brexit side’s economist, Dr Andrew Lilico, predicted lost growth of 2-3%, around £60bn, in the short term. “We are not leaving the EU to get better economic deals,” he told the BBC. The gains were geo-political.

For example, there’s the claim that we’re the EU’s largest export market and that it needs us more than we need it.

This is true in one way: the UK is the EU’s largest single export market in goods and it sells more to us than we buy. The US (pre-Trump) is a close second, with the UK and US making up 16% and 15% of EU exports respectively.

However: nearly half of our exports of goods and services go to the EU, 44%.

Imagine you sold £200 worth of widgets to a man and bought £100 worth of grommets from him. He might believe you couldn’t afford to upset him — he buys twice from you what you buy from him. What he doesn’t appreciate is that his total sales are £200, yours are £1,400. His £200 doesn’t look so hot now.

A recent BBC documentary sent Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College, London, round Europe. He discovered that to un homme the Europeans were sorry to see us go, but would not bend the rules to suit us.

He returned with no reassurances, just a fine selection of European sayings: we’ve made the bed, we’ve got to lie in it, we’ve got to sit on our own blisters, we’ve got to decide whether to keep the butter or the money from the butter and we’ve got to eat the soup we cooked.

The philosopher Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth”, but the Government doesn’t to have a plan, having bungled the referendum from start to finish.

It seems probable we’re not going to be able to strike any deals with the EU and the Government is either going to have to surrender some of the elements the people voted for in the referendum (like border controls for EU nationals) or take the financial hit the Brexit economists predicted.

Either way it’s going to be interesting how it spins the tale — it’s likely that a lot of what is factually correct today will be lost under a blizzard of spin and tabloid headlines in six months’ time.

The troubled families, of course, are no better off than they were before.

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