Boris Johnson, the frontrunner in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister, will be summoned to court over allegations he lied to the public during the Brexit referendum campaign.
The former foreign secretary is facing a private prosecution, following a crowdfunding campaign led by 26-year-old Marcus Ball.
“The (proposed) defendant repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership, expressly stating, endorsing or inferring that the cost of EU membership was £350 million ($442 million) per week,” the application against Johnson said.
The figure was a central and controversial part of the pro-Leave campaign’s narrative, famously emblazoned across the side of a campaign bus. Opponents argued that it was deliberately misleading and it became symbolic of the divisions caused by the Brexit referendum.
“Lying on a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics,” Ball’s lawyer told the court.
The maximum penalty for misconduct in public office is life imprisonment.
Johnson will be required to attend Westminster Magistrates’ Court for a preliminary hearing, and then the Crown Court for trial.
“Having considered all the relevant factors I am satisfied that this is a proper case to issue the summons as requested for the three offences as drafted,” District Judge Margot Coleman said in a written ruling on Wednesday morning.
The judge said the allegations against Johnson were “unproven”, but added that issuing a summons was proper.
In 2017, the UK Statistics Authority criticised Johnson for doubling down on the figure in a newspaper column. In a formal letter to Johnson, who was foreign secretary at the time, Sir David Norgrove, chair of the authority, said it was “a clear misuse of official statistics”.
Ball, who has led the legal campaign against Johnson, spent more than two years preparing the case, and raised more than $500,000 to fund the action, Huffington Post reported.
His legal team is hoping to make it a criminal offence for politicians to lie to the public about spending figures, but also maintains that Johnson is innocent until proven guilty, and appealed to the public “to respect the formality of the court process”.
The former London mayor’s political allies weighed in following the court’s decision on Wednesday.
“Politicians at election times exaggerate, and say things that may or may not be true, and it’s the electorate, not the courts, who should decide whether they are reliable or not,” said David Mellor, a former MP who resigned as a Conservative minister after his mistress sold the story of their extra-marital affair to a newspaper.
Michael Gove, another key figure behind the Vote Leave “Brexit bus” campaign, and also in the running to be the next Conservative party leader, said: “We should trust the public to decide on the merits of a political case. We should not try to criminalise free speech.”
Johnson’s office has yet to reply to requests for comment, but his lawyer Adrian Darbishire said at the hearing he staunchly denied acting in an improper or dishonest manner.
Johnson’s position is that the case is a politically motivated stunt as part of a campaign to undermine the Brexit referendum result.
Judge Coleman accepted that, when Ball first began his campaign three years ago, “there may have been a political purpose to these proceedings”.
“However, the information for the summons was laid on February 28, 2019 and that argument in my view is no longer pertinent,” she said.
“I do not accept the application is vexatious.”
A date for Johnson’s court appearance is yet to be set.