Leader comment: Pies, damned pork pies, and Brexit statistics

Pork pie-gate provided a welcome distraction from the crucial business of Government yesterday.

Boris Johnson's claims over Melton Mowbray pork pies exports have been called into question. Picture: PA
Boris Johnson's claims over Melton Mowbray pork pies exports have been called into question. Picture: PA

There is clearly nothing better for the Government to be doing than arguing over whether the UK does indeed export the baked treat to Thailand and Iceland. No looming deadline to come up with an alternative to the Irish backstop or tentative trade deals to be negotiated. This was the meat of the issue.

So, as a reminder, Boris Johnson kicked things off when he said: “Melton Mowbray pork pies, which are sold in Thailand and in Iceland, are currently unable to enter the US market because of, I don’t know, some sort of Food and Drug Administration restriction.”

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Now the words “I don’t know” are a red flag even for a Prime Minister not famed for his grasp of fine detail, and immediately sparked an examination of the rest of the statement.

Enter the chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association. Asked if the PM was correct that pies were sold in Thailand and Iceland, Matthew O’Callaghan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Not really. With all of these things, it is a little bit of give and take. We don’t actually export to Thailand or to Iceland.” Asked if the PM’s claim was “not true”, he added: “Not that I know of, I’m afraid.”

Thrown into full crisis comms, Downing Street hit back and managed to dig up the example of Walker and Son, a founding member of the aforementioned association.

Asked if this company sells pies in both Thailand and Iceland, a senior British official insisted: “It certainly has done so.”

Challenged about Mr O’Callaghan’s comments, the official said: “Look at his quote very carefully. It says, ‘Not that I’m aware of’.

“He states that it’s his knowledge that he is not aware of this fact. He is the chair of an association. I will give you a company that is actually saying that they export them to Thailand and Iceland.”

Now, as entertaining as this all is, and as irrelevant as it is to the challenge facing the UK, you cannot help but wonder where the country would be now if some of the statements made during the EU referendum campaign were subjected to the same level of scrutiny.

More than a few pork pies were sold to the British public, and none of them originated in Melton Mowbray. There was a certain £350 million statistic plastered on the side of a bus for a start.