Boris Johnson Ordered To Appear In Court On Charges He Lied During Brexit Campaign

Boris Johnson, who is currently the apparent frontrunner to succeed Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister, has been ordered to appear in court on charges he lied during the 2016 Brexit campaign.

Boris Johnson, who seems to be the frontrunner to succeed Theresa May as the next leader of the Conservative Party, and thereby the next British Prime Minister, is being required to face trial for lying to the public about Brexit:

LONDON — Boris Johnson, the front-runner to replace Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, was ordered on Wednesday to appear in court for a preliminary hearing over allegations that he lied to the public during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Mr. Johnson, a former foreign secretary under Mrs. May, has been accused of misconduct in public office over several claims, including the suggestion that Britain paid 350 million pounds, or $440 million, every week to the European Union for the country’s membership.

The £350 million figure was a central theme of the pro-Brexit campaign, which promised to invest that amount into the nation’s health service should Britain vote to leave the bloc.

The slogan was emblazoned on a Brexit campaign bus: “We send the EU £350m a week: let’s fund our NHS instead,” referring to the National Health Service.

But after Britons voted to leave the bloc by 52 percent to 48 percent, many supporters of Brexit abandoned the pledge, saying it had been a ” mistake.” But opponents of Brexit argued that the campaign slogan had been a gross misuse of official statistics to deliberately misled voters.

The figure does not account for Britain’s rebate, which is deducted before it sends money to Brussels. Britain’s weekly net contribution to the European Union in April 2016 was about £190 million a week, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Mr. Johnson, one of the most prominent voices in favor of leaving the European Union, resigned as foreign secretary in 2018 in protest over Mrs. May’s Brexit plan.

His prosecution was made possible by a businessman, Marcus Ball, who raised more than £200,000 pounds to provide the financial backing to pursue the case. Mr. Ball’s lawyers said that Mr. Johnson’s conduct had been both “irresponsible and dishonest.”

No one from Mr. Johnson’s office could immediately be reached for comment. But he has denied wrongdoing, and his lawyers have argued that the case is a political stunt by opponents of Brexit.

In a written ruling, District Judge Margot Coleman of Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London said that Mr. Johnson should be summoned to court, while noting that the accusations had not been proven and that she had not made any findings of the fact.

“Having considered all the relevant factors, I am satisfied that this is a proper case to issue the summons as requested for the three offenses as drafted,” Judge Coleman said. “This means the proposed defendant will be required to attend this court for a preliminary hearing, and the case will then be sent to the Crown Court for trial.”

The judge’s ruling did not specify a date for Mr. Johnson to appear in court. The maximum punishment for the offense he is accused of is life imprisonment after conviction.

The Guardian has more:

Boris Johnson has been summoned to court to face accusations of misconduct in public office over comments made in the run-up to the EU referendum.

The ruling follows a crowdfunded move to launch a private prosecution of the MP, who is currently the frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest.

Johnson lied and engaged in criminal conduct when he repeatedly claimed during the 2016 EU referendum campaign that the UK sent £350m a week to Brussels, lawyers for a 29-year-old businessman who launched the prosecution bid told Westminster magistrates court last week.

A legal team assembled by Marcus Ball, who has accused the former foreign secretary of misconduct in public office and raised more than £400,000 to finance the prosecution, laid out their case in front of the district judge, Margot Coleman.

The case concerned the “now infamous claim” by Johnson about the £350m, according to Lewis Power QC, who said the case was not about preventing or delaying Brexit.

Coleman ruled today: “The allegations which have been made are unproven accusations and I do not make any findings of fact. 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. The charges are indictable only.

“This means the proposed defendant will be required to attend this court for a preliminary hearing, and the case will then be sent to the crown court for trial. The charges can only be dealt with in the crown court.”

The next hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court is expected to take place within three or four weeks time and will be a purely administrative one but Johnson will have to attend. He and his legal team will be asked if he intends to contest the case.

I am obviously not an expert in British law, but reading through the 14-page ruling ordering Johnson to appear before the Court it appears that the basis for any charges that may be brought against Johnson appears to be statutory and case law regarding misconduct by public officials. Whether that includes comments made by politicians during the course of a political campaign is something that I cannot and won’t speak to, so I’ll just assume for now that the Magistrate is within their authority to issue the order. It also appears that these charges, brought in Court by a citizen, are in essence some form of “citizen’s arrest” asking the Court to hold Johnson liable for the alleged misrepresentations he made during the course of the 2016 Brexit campaign. If there were no legal basis for that claim, I can only presume the Magistrate is correct.

It’s unlikely that a case like this could be brought in the United States, of course. First of all, the First Amendment would likely stand as a bar to any sort of law or interpretation of existing law that would criminally punish someone for lying in the course of a political campaign. Instead, American courts would see something like this as an issue that should be left to the political process and the voters. Second, unlike the United Kingdom, there does not appear to be any statutory authority on either the Federal or state levels that could be the basis for a charge like the one being pursued against Johnson here.

The closest analogy to what is happening to Johnson is charged with that I am aware of is a case arising out of the 2010 election and the debate over the Affordable Care Act. After losing his bid for re-election in 2010, former Congressman Steven Driehaus filed a lawsuit against a pro-life group alleging that they had lied about his stance on abortion during the course of the campaign. In August 2011, a Federal Judge in Ohio ruled in Driehaus’s favor allowing the lawsuit to go forward. In that ruling, the Judge found that Driehaus had made out a proper claim for defamation and that the case should be allowed to go to trial. Driehaus’s lawsuit was based on an Ohio law that purported to make “false statements” made during the course of a political campaign to be prosecuted. In response, the Susan B. Anthony List, the pro-life group that was the Defendant in that case, filed a counterclaim alleging that the underlying statute was unconstitutional. While Driehaus ultimately withdrew his claim against the SBA List, the counterclaim was allowed to go forward and, in 2014 the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision allowing that claim to go forward in an opinion that made it clear that the underlying statute would likely not withstand Supreme Court review. In a subsequent proceeding in Federal District Court the Ohio law that had formed the basis of Driehaus’s lawsuit was struck down as unconstitutional.

The immediate question arising out of the charges against Johnson, of course, is what impact these charges could have on Johnson’s bid to become Tory leader. As it stands, he still appears to be the frontrunner for the position but if he has this issue of lying about Brexit hanging over his head, likely meaning he would have to appear in Court even while serving as Prime Minister, it could cause his support to fizzle out as it did back in 2016 when he ran to succeed David Cameron. At least for now, that will depend on what impression all this leaves for Tory Members of Parliament and the members of the Conservative Party who will be charged with picking a new leader in the next six weeks.

Here’s the Magistrate Court’s ruling:

Ball v Johnson by on Scribd



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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Pete S says:

    I can only assume that being charged for lying will boost his status within the Conservative Party and with their supporters, particularly with the enthusiastic Brexiters.

    ReplyReply
  2. michael reynolds says:

    Tories have the same relationship to truth as Republicans. I doubt this will affect Boris other than to perhaps boost his chances.

    ReplyReply
  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Pete S:
    Beat me by a minute!

    ReplyReply
  4. JohnMcC says:

    Gosh, what a decision: On this hand the First Amendment. On that hand a legal penalty for deceiving the electorate.

    I’m as guilty as anyone of fetishizing the Founders and the Bill of Rights and all. Sure. But, ya know……..

    ReplyReply
  5. grumpy realist says:

    Johnson is notorious in the U.K. for having make up all sorts of stories about the EU when acting as a “journalist”. In fact, he was fired from at least one position for having done so.

    My feeling is that if we want our political system to hold together, we’re going to have to start going after falsehoods made by political entities much more aggressively.

    ReplyReply
  6. EddieInCA says:

    Boris Johnson is Donald Trump without the smarts.

    Yeah. I said that.

    He’s a f**king clown supported by the British equivalent of Trump supporters. He, and they, long for the UK of the 1930’s. Not. Gonna. Happen.

    ReplyReply
  7. gVOR08 says:

    @EddieInCA:

    He, and they, long for the UK of the 1930’s. Not. Gonna. Happen.

    True. But they can still destroy the UK trying.

    ReplyReply
  8. EddieInCA says:

    @gVOR08:

    Same as Trump supporters.

    ReplyReply

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