Boris Johnson grilled on EU referendum as-it-happened

Boris Johnson faces sustained grilling by MPs for first time since election
Boris Johnson faces sustained grilling by MPs for first time since election
Adam Bienkov By

11.57 - Summary: We're going to have to leave Boris now, to deal with the weekly meeting between David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn for PMQs. As expected, there was no great meltdown from the London mayor. He is well used to appearing before such committees at City Hall and is a master at evasion and political misdirection. However there were some revealing passages, most notably on Boris's misuse of statistics and his formerly much more pro-european politics. His attempted transformation into an anti-immigration politician was also particularly shameless. In summary, he survived but he also revealed some important weaknesses. How his opponents both inside and outside his own party exploit those weaknesses, could prove to be crucial.

11.41 - John Mann quotes from a Johnson speech from 2003 in the House of Commons in which he struck a notably much more Euophile tone than he does today. I've tracked down the speech. Here's the key excerpt (my emphasis).

"I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it—some means of association between the sovereign states of Europe, perhaps an organisation in Brussels—overnight. I was educated at a European school. If I wanted to, I could sing the "Ode to Joy" in German.

"My key point is that there are tangible benefits to our membership of the European Union. At some stage the game is up and all bets are off, as our political careers are all extinguished in one way or another. However, under the terms of the benign and beneficent Single European Act—several hon. Members have generously pointed out that it was a Conservative inspiration and that Mrs. Thatcher, as she then was, pushed forward with the extension of free market values across the European Community—I would be able to seek an alternative career as a dentist in Belgium or, with what we are inaugurating today, in Poland, Malta or any of the other accession countries."


This is a particularly revealing passage, because it runs completely at odds with Boris's recent Dartford speech in favour of Brexit, the main argument of which was that nobody would recreate the EU if it didn't exist today.

11.29 - Andrew Tyrie quotes Boris's previous comments about immigration's effect on house prices. He told Andrew Marr in 2012: "I don't think it is sensible to say to keep down property values we should keep people out, or investors out, in order to allow property values to decline. That would lead to a fall in the equity of everyone and, for the life of me, I cannot see the logic." Boris denies his new position that immigration is a huge negative, is a reversal.

11.20 - Boris, who used to call for an amnesty on illegal immigration when he was running for mayor, and used to boast that he was the most pro-immigration politician in the country, now tells the committee that "uncontrolled immigration" has "gravely... put pressure on services of all kinds" and depressed wages. "It is leading to colossal pressures" he insists.

11.18 - Boris says Britain would be "£10billion better off on day one" if Britain leaves the EU. He's getting increasingly annoyed with Streeting's questions and keeps on talking over him. Tyries tells him again to stop interrupting the committee.

11.09 - Johnson now being questioned by Wes Streeting, an up-and-coming Labour MP, who predicted that Boris would flounder today (see below). Streeting asks Boris to agree that there would be "an economic shock" to exit. Boris disagrees then Streeting points out this is what Boris's own economic adviser Gerard Lyons said previously (see below again). "You don't agree with your own adviser?" Boris (falsely) denies that Lyons said this and insists there will be no economic downsides. "British democracy [and economy] would be galvanised," he insists.

11.08 - Boris asked to confirm his comments earlier that the Bank of England's governor's comments about Brexit were "political". "No, I have high regard for him..." he stumbles.

11.05 - Boris calls suggestion by Reeves that an EU trade deal would take years "tripe" and says that such a deal could be done in "short order". He claims Britain could get access the single market with none of the downsides. "You say that with no evidence," replies Reeves. "Yes," says Boris to laughter from the committee.

11.00 - Division bell sounds and the MPs observe a minute's silence for those who have died in the events in Brussels.

10.54 - Boris told by Tyrie to stop interrupting MPs on the committee. "I think I've demolished their questions" says Boris rather arrogantly. Not sure that was wise.

10.51 - Boris refers to advice from his chief economic adviser which said leaving teh EU would be in Britain's interest. Doesn't mention that the report by Gerard Lyons, also said that leaving would be an "econmic shock" for the city and inevitably "depress growth" for a period.

10.46 - Labour MP Rachel Reeves (who incidentally was today listed as one of the MPs who are Jeremy Corbyn believes is "hostile" towards him) questioning Boris's call for a deal with the EU in a similar vein to Canada when that deal took seven years to complete. She refers to arguments about the economic case for leaving the EU from the Bank of England, the chancellor and others. "These are pretty compelling reasons for staying in," she says. Boris suggests their positions are merely "political"/

10.40 - Boris suggests that those supporting Britain's membership of the EU have a vested interest and "turn left on the plane" as a result of it. 

10.35 - Boris pulls out pamplet written by the chair Andrew Tyrie called "Never Say Never: Common Sense on the Euro". Johnson suggests that Tyrie suggested the EU could only work as a single market if it had a single currency. Tyrie clearly annoyed and accuses Boris of misrepresenting him.

10.32 - Boris pulls out another statistic, which appears surprising: "This city [London] is now producing more film and TV than New York and Los Angeles." Factcheckers help welcome on this one please.

10.27 - Boris now asked about his previous comments that there could be two referendums. One on leaving and then one on rejoining in a new looser relationship. "We have one referendum and then we get on with it... I have been pretty clear about that," he says.

10.25 - Tyrie now questioning him about his previous comments saying Britain could have a similar relationship to the EU as Norway or Switzerland and whether this would mean we were part of the "single market council." Boris says he no longer believes this is possible.

10.22 - Johnson now being asked about Nissan's warnings about their investment in the UK if we leave the EU. Boris claims they have changed their mind. Goodman corrects him. He then claims Nissan made similar warnings about not joining the Euro. This claim, at least, is true.

10.19 - Boris asked by Goodman about the pound falling when he announced his intention to campaign for Britain to leave the EU. "are you not concerned about the instability [caused by Brexit] on the British economy."  He says he has seen "no evidence whatever" that the economy is being affected in any way. He says there were similar warnings about not joining the Euro, which never came to fruition. "The risks come from remaining," he says.

10.18 - Boris being asked about hsi previous claim that Britain could get a trade deal withe the EU in the Canadian model. He now denies that he wants that deal. "I want a British deal" he insists.

10.12 - Boris now under questioning from Helen Goodman MP. Gets corrected again on another statistical claim about trade with Europe. "Forgive me" he replies. There's been a lot of corrections so far. From watching him at City Hall, it's clear Boris's grasp of statistics is poor at the best of times, but it's also clear that he doesn't always appear to care whether he gets his facts right. One of his favourite quips in speeches is to make a claim and then to say it is "a fact which is too good to check". We've seen a fair bit of that today.

10.04 - Tyrie asks Boris about his claim that 59% of regulations come from the EU. Tyrie points out that the House of Commons library suggests the real number could be as low as 15%. Boris interrupts with question for Tyrie. "Luckily I ask the questions here" replies the chair.

10.03 - Mogg clearly a fan of Boris. "I thank you for your compelling evidence," he tells him.

09.59 - Boris now talking about rulings by the European court of Justice. He said it often "reminds me of the computer in [Stanley Kubrick's] 2001 which has slipped it's moorings and become autonomous." 

09.56 - Boris: "I am amazed as mayor every day at the sheer volume of stuff that comes across my desk from the EU"

09.51 - Questioning moves to Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg who reassures Boris that he is "on your side". "you are making the important point about Cardiff and teabags... There is inevitaby a need to implement EU law".

09.48 - After a long session in which his claims about EU regulation have been exposed as false or exaggerations, Boris says Remain "should get their facts straight" and accuses them of "propaganda".

09.43 - Boris asked about his claims the EU brought in legislation stipulating the size of coffins. Andrew Tyrie asks him to name the legislation. He says "it's been a long time since he's studied it" and can't remember, Tyrie tells him his claims are "a figment of your imagination." Boris accuses Tyrie and others of trying to mock and attack people who support Brexit.

09.35 - Boris confronted about claims in a recent speech that EU regulations suggest you "can't recyle a teabag and that children under eight can't blow up baloons."  Tyrie points out that the regulation only requires warnings about age should be placed on baloon packaging, not that children should be banned from doing so. There are also no laws forbidding people from re-using teabags. Boris claims Cardiff council did ban teabag re-use becasue of EU law which encouraged them to "overzealously interpret" the regulation.

09.31 - Boris being asked about an Open Europe report on the costs and benefits of EU regulation. Tyrie accuses him of only listing the costs of regulation while ignoring the benefits. "Do you think we can ignore that the benefits are extensive?"

09.28 - Boris says the UK contributes £600 milllion to Europe.

09.22 - Johnson confronted with polls showing financial industry is strongly opposed to leaving the EU. Johnson says he has lots of conversations with leading bankers and privately they are quite relaxed about the prospect of Brexit.

09.20 - The chair Andrew Tyrie asks Johnson whether he should call him mayor of "Boris" and adds that they know each other "very well."

Boris asked about Londoner's views about Brexit. He says he's aware that polling shows Londoners are generally more supportive of staying in but "contrasts that" with national polling which is more mixed.

09.00 - Boris Johnson will appear in front of the Treasury Select Committee this morning for extended questioning by MPs. Ostensibly he's here to talk about Britain's relationship with the EU, but some MPs see it as a perfect opportunity to put the Tory favourite to become the next prime minister to the test.

We're told to expect a showdown. Members of the committe are this morning talking up their chances of cornering him on the details.

Labour MP Wes Streeting told the Telegraph:

"Boris Johnson is appearing before us because he is the mayor of London, he has got to explain beyond the usual generalities and attempts to bluster, how on earth the Mayor of London has drawn this conclusion that Brexit is the right deal for London and the rest of the UK.

"He is going to have to cope under some quite forensic scrutiny - this is not City Hall, this is the Treasury select committee and if he has any hope of being Prime Minister he is going to have to stand up to the scrutiny."

Another MP told the paper: "It is going to be windbag Boris versus the interrogators – in a way that assembly members at City Hall never put him under... You might see one or two of us dipping in later on when he is getting more tired. He can only do his style for half an hour – then he repeats himself – that’s when you can take him apart.”

Having followed Boris for eight years at City Hall, I think these MPs are overly-optimistic about the prospect of Johnson floundering. Whatever they may think of the skills of London Assembly members (and they clearly don't think much) Johnson is a master at evading questioning, even in lengthy sessions like this. In fact since 2008 Boris has appeared at eighty mayor's question times, each of which can last for up to three hours. At these sessions he is cornered on a huge range of issues. I can count on the fingers of one hand, the amount of times he has ever got into any real trouble during these sessions. Perhaps MPs can do better, but I wouldn't bet much money on it.

However, it should still be a fascinating appearance. By declaring himself for Brexit, Boris has made himself the target, not just of his natural opponents in the Labour party, but also many senior Conservative MPs. It will be fascinating to see how he handles that today. Stick here for full coverage and analysis from the session.

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