Boris Johnson’s allies have slammed a decision to summon him to court over claims he lied during the run-up to the Brexit referendum, calling them “politically motivated”.
The flamboyant Tory leadership candidate, seen by many as the front runner to be the next Prime Minister, has been accused of misconduct in public office through a private prosecution launched by an anti-Brexit campaigner. He will appear at crown court to answer the claims that he lied and committed criminal offences by making the claim Britain sent the EU £350m a week in 2016.
The figure was central to Vote Leave’s calls to “take back control”, and famously appeared on the side of a red campaign bus in the weeks before Britain voted to leave the EU. Directly below the claim, the bus said: “Let’s fund our NHS instead.”
A source close to Johnson said the case was a “politically motivated attempt to reverse Brexit”, adding that it “risks undermining our democracy”.
“It is not the role of criminal law to regulate political speech,” they said. “If this case is allowed to proceed then the state, rather than the public, will be put in charge of determining the strength of arguments at elections.”
The case was brought against Johnson by Marcus Ball, who crowdfunded £200,000 to do so. Today district judge Margot Coleman ruled that Johnson will be summoned to face the claims in the crown court ahead of a potential trial.
Ball claimed Johnson “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 £350m per week”.
He added: “The defendant knew that such comments were false or misleading in that he had on other occasions used accurate figures and showed a clear understanding of how to quantify UK spending in respect of the EU”
Johnson's defence team said: “A complaint about the way in which a political campaigner has deployed publicly-available statistics in the services of a political debate is not a proper basis for the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.”
Competitors in the Tory leadership race leapt to his aid today. Environment secretary Michael Gove tweeted: “We should not try to criminalise free speech.”
Meanwhile, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab told ITV News: “I do worry a little bit about the timing of this. The cut and thrust of democratic debate ought to be decided by your viewers rather than in court.”