An enduring memory of the 2016 Brexit campaign, so marked by the foppish-haired blusterer, Boris Johnson, was the claim that the European Union was hungrily drawing out from British coffers £350 million a week. It was insufferable, unqualified and dishonest. It was a claim reared in the atmosphere of outrageous deception marking the effort on all sides of the debate regarding Britain’s relationship with the EU. But some deceptions have the ballast to go further than others.
Rooted in the machinery of politics, such deceptions might have stayed there, deemed those natural outrages of a not so noble vocation. After all, political figures do make lying an art, if a very low one. But Johnson has not been so fortunate. A private prosecution has been launched against the aspiring Tory leader and possible replacement for Prime Minister Theresa May based on allegations he “repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership” with specific reference to the £350 million figure. Marcus Ball, the initiator of the action and a Remain campaigner, had the heavy artillery £236,000 will bring, the very healthy result of crowdfunding.
Johnson’s legal team was quick to suggest that the whole matter was vexatious, an around about effort to question the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum result. A source close to Johnson (and who might that be?) told the BBC that the case was a “politically motivated attempt to reverse Brexit.” Adrian Darbishire QC, representing Johnson, was withering in describing the action as a political stunt intended to create mischief in an effort “to regulate the content and quality of political debate” using the criminal law.
Such debate might well feature figures and claims, and Johnson, at best, could only be accused of using the £350m sum for no other purpose than “in the course of a contested political campaign.” Such campaigns are bound to contain a range of claims duly “challenged, contradicted and criticised.”
Ball’s legal representative, Lewis Power QC, took the broader view. The proposed prosecution was not an attempt to “seek to prevent or delay Brexit”. There was a larger principle at stake: “when politicians lie, democracy dies”.