LONDON – Boris Johnson, considered the front-runner to become Britain’s next prime minister, must appear in court over allegations that he knowingly lied during the Brexit referendum campaign, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Johnson, the former foreign secretary, will be summoned to appear over allegations of misconduct in public office, Judge Margot Coleman said in a written decision, without specifying the date.
The case concerns Johnson’s claim that Britain sends £350 million ($440 million) a week to the European Union.
While this was Britain’s gross contribution, the net figure accounts for a budget rebate from the EU as well as payments to Britain’s public sector from the EU budget, and is substantially less.
Businessman Marcus Ball has crowd-funded a private initiative to bring Johnson to court.
“The allegations which have been made are unproven accusations, and I do not make any findings of fact,” the judge said. “Having considered all the relevant factors I am satisfied that this is a proper case to issue the summons as requested,” she wrote.
Referring to Johnson as the “proposed defendant,” Coleman said he would be required to attend a preliminary hearing that could then result in a trial.
Political observers consider Johnson the favorite among 11 candidates vying to replace Theresa May as leader of the governing Conservative Party, and therefore prime minister.
May will quit as Conservative leader on June 7, with the new prime minister due to be in place before July 20.
The application brought by Ball’s lawyers alleges that Johnson “repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership” and “knew that such comments were false or misleading.”
“Lying on a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics.”
The maximum penalty for misconduct in public office is life imprisonment.
Johnson was not present at last week’s hearing to determine whether he must be summoned, but the politician’s lawyer, Adrian Darbishire, said the pro-Brexit figurehead staunchly denied acting in an improper or dishonest manner.
Coleman considered whether the case had been brought purely to annoy Johnson.
The former London mayor contends the application is a politically motivated stunt as part of a campaign to undermine the referendum result or prevent its consequences.
Britain is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31.
“I accept the defense submission that when the applicant commenced his consideration of whether to bring a private prosecution against the proposed defendant, some three years ago, there may have been a political purpose to these proceedings,” Coleman said. “However, the information for the summons was laid on Feb. 28, 2019, and that argument in my view is no longer pertinent. I do not accept the application is vexatious.”
In her 14-page decision, the judge added, “This is an unusual and exceptional application with a considerable public interest and it is right that full reasons are provided.”
Conservative Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, who backs Johnson for the leadership, said the accuracy of the £350 million claim was not a matter for the courts.
“Politicizing justice is a really bad idea and it’s actually what happens in totalitarian regimes where people get prosecuted for free speech,” the hard-core Brexiteer said.
During the 2016 EU membership referendum, the official Leave campaign’s battle bus had “We send the EU £350 million a week” printed on the side.
The claim was hotly contested.
According to Finance Ministry figures available at the time, Britain’s gross contribution to the EU budget was about £17.8 billion in 2015 (£342 million a week). It actually turned out at £19.5 billion (£376 million a week).
In 2016, the gross contribution was £17 billion (£327 million a week). But Britain had a rebate of £3.9 billion — applied before the money is paid — which would mean payments of about £250 million.
Meanwhile, EU payments back into the British public sector, for example into regional development and agriculture, totaled £3.5 billion.
The 2016 net public sector contribution was therefore £9.6 billion, or some £185 million a week.
The EU also makes payments via the private sector — for example, to research organizations — that are not included in the Treasury figures.
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