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May revives Brexit dividend 'lie' in bid to sell deal to public and MPs

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Theresa May speaking after sealing her Brexit deal with the EU (Reuters)

UK prime minister Theresa May has revived Vote Leave’s controversial claim that Brexit will benefit the National Health Service (NHS) in a bid to sell her freshly-signed divorce deal to sceptical MPs and members of the public.

Using a press conference in Brussels to make a direct appeal to them, she said one of the benefits of her deal would be an end to “vast payments” into the European Union’s budget.

“Instead we will be able to spend taxpayers money on our priorities, like the £394m per week of extra investment into our NHS,” she promised.

Her comments have resurrected a row from the 2016 referendum at a time when she is seeking to bring both sides together behind her deal.

READ MORE: Hammond is peddling the debunked notion of a ‘Brexit dividend’

Pro-Brexit campaigners toured the country in a bus adorned with the slogan: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” The figure was branded “misleading” by Britain’s statistics authority.

And French president Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that Brexit was turning out to be “more expensive and more painful” than predicted.

“Some said it [Brexit] would not cost anything and it would actually bring about some positive financial elements for the United Kingdom,” he said. “But the cost is huge and, once again, those that said the British people would save hundreds of billions of pounds have lied.

May also came under fire from her own benches. Pro-EU Conservative and former GP Sarah Wollaston said it was “deeply shocking” that the prime minister restated the discredited NHS funding claim.

Emmanuel Macron said those claiming the UK will benefit financially from Brexit have “lied” (Reuters)

“There is no financial bonanza linked to Brexit only a massive penalty for the NHS, research, public health and social care,” she said.

May said ending free movement of people and an “end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice” were the proof that her deal will truly “take back control.”

And the embattled prime minister said MPs now face a choice between “whether we move forward together into a brighter future” by backing her deal in a vote expected on December 10 or “open the door to yet more division and uncertainty” by voting it down.

“The British people don’t want to spend any more time arguing over Brexit,” she said. “They want a good deal done that fulfils the Brexit vote and allows us to come together again as a country.”

READ MORE: EU leaders urge MPs to back May after approving Brexit deal

“So I will take this deal back to the House of Commons confident we have achieved the best deal available and full of optimism about the future of our country. In parliament and beyond it, I will make the case for this deal with all my heart and I look forward to that campaign.” 

European leaders rallied behind May after signing off the deal within minutes on Sunday morning.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said: “There isn’t a plan B. The truth is what we have here is the best deal available, for the United Kingdom and for the European Union.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We are focusing on making this a success…I believe the British prime minister Theresa May is going to do whatever is within her power to do her bit.”

And Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said: “If anyone thinks in the United Kingdom that by voting No something better would come out of it, they are wrong.”