The favourite to be the next UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, has been ordered to defend himself in court after a district judge ruled that he should answer for his infamous, and oft-disputed, claim that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU.
Johnson, who led the successful Vote Leave campaign at the June 2016 Brexit referendum, repeatedly stated during the campaign that the UK’s purported £350 million weekly contribution to the EU budget could be used to support the country’s National Health Service instead.
The message became ubiquitous throughout the campaign, being plastered across Vote Leave’s campaign bus which toured the country.
The £350 million a week claim was denounced as false by the UK’s national statistics authority, which described it as “a clear misuse of official statistics”.
‘The allegations which have been made are unproven accusations and I do not make any findings of fact,” District Judge Margot Coleman said on Tuesday (29 May).
“I accept that the public offices held by Mr Johnson provide status but with that status comes influence and authority,” Coleman said, adding that “I am satisfied there is sufficient to establish prima facie evidence of an issue to be determined at trial.”
The preliminary hearing will take place at Westminster Magistrates’ Court with the case then to be sent to the Crown Court for trial.
The case was brought to court by businessman Marcus Ball, who has raised £200,000 to pay for a private prosecution via crowd-funding. Ball alleges that Johnson knowingly lied about the cost of the UK’s membership of the EU.
Lewis Power QC, who represents Ball, described Johnson’s conduct during the referendum campaign as “both irresponsible and dishonest”.
If successful, Ball’s attempt will be the first time a sitting MP will have been prosecuted on the grounds of ‘lying to the public,’ which is considered misconduct in public office, a criminal offence under the UK’s common law.
For his part, Johnson has recruited a crack team of lawyers to defend him, led by Adrian Darbishire QC.
Darbishire announced last week that Johnson “absolutely denies” the claims brought against him. Johnson’s submission to the court, prepared by Darbishire stated that “the application is a (political) stunt. Its true purpose is not that it should succeed, but that it should be made at all.”
“The company and this application owe their existence to the desire on the part of individuals such as Mr Ball to undermine the referendum result. The ‘Brexit justice’ which is ultimately sought is no Brexit,” it added.
Johnson, who served as Theresa May’s Foreign Secretary before resigning last July over her Brexit plans, is the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed May in the Conservative party leadership race that will formally start on June 10 and is likely to last for several months.
The pending legal case will give fuel to Johnson’s critics.
“Given Johnson wants to be the next prime minister of this country, it’s only right that he is held accountable for the lies he told in 2016,” said Ed Davey, a former cabinet minister who is standing for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats.
However, few pundits expect Johnson’s leadership prospects to be damaged by the case among a Conservative party that it largely Eurosceptic.
‘Special place in hell’
President of the European Council Donald Tusk has been an outspoken critic of those, he says, who lied as part of the campaign for the UK to leave the EU.
During Tuesday’s summit of EU leaders, Tusk said that Brexit represents a “vaccine against anti-EU propaganda and fake news,” and had helped to reduce the levels of anti-EU disinformation disseminated as a means to destabilise the bloc.
In February, Tusk said that there was a “special place in hell” for Brexit campaigners who had not devised a feasible plan for the UK to leave the EU.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox and Sam Morgan]