World / Politics

Boris Johnson wins Brexit case hounding his leadership bid

AFP-JIJI

Former U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s bid to succeed Theresa May as prime minister received a big boost Friday when a London court quashed his summons to answer charges that he lied during the Brexit referendum campaign.

His lawyers claimed that the private prosecution was “politically motivated” and had no precedent in common law.

The two-judge High Court panel said it was persuaded by their case.

The ruling was issued after nearly four hours of hearings into whether Johnson knowingly mislead the nation while arguing in favor of Britain’s split from the European Union during the 2016 referendum campaign.

Johnson was both a member of Parliament and mayor of London in the run-up to the highly contentious vote.

His most famous claim was that Britain would no longer have to make weekly payments of £350 million ($445 million, €395 million) to Brussels.

The case against him argued that he had committed the criminal offense of misconduct in a public office by using his position to knowingly make a false claim.

A district judge at the lower Westminster Magistrates Court in London decided to summons Johnson to court.

The former minister successfully appealed to England’s High Court to overturn the earlier ruling.

“We are quashing the decision of the district judge to issue the summonses,” judge Michael Supperstone ruled.

The decision left Marcus Ball — a 29-year-old businessman who crowdfunded to pay for the proceedings against one of Britain’s most famous politicians — bitterly disappointed and contemplating an appeal.

“We’ve just given the green light to every politician to lie to us about our money for ever. That’s a terrible idea that I refuse to accept,” Ball told reporters outside the court in London.

“Mr. Johnson MP, you do not have the right to lie to the public about how their money is being spent. Go on television and tell everybody what the truth is.”

The £350 million membership price tag represented Britain’s gross contribution to the 28-nation EU bloc.

But the net figure is much smaller because it also includes a budget rebate from Brussels as well as payments to Britain’s public sector from EU coffers.

The official pro-Brexit campaign emblazoned the £350 million total on its red touring bus during the 2016 EU referendum.

The image became one of the lingering symbols of a campaign that left Britain as divided as it had been before the vote.

Johnson’s lawyer Adrian Darbishire argued on Friday that the case was designed to stop Brexit from the start.

“This case, on the face of it, represents political origins… in an area of public life that has never been subject to a court of law,” he told the court.

“Any form of political motivation is anathema to criminal proceedings.”

Ball said he never intended to use the case to either halt Brexit or undermine Johnson’s political career.

“The only way that Brexit could ever actually be stopped is if people who voted for it before change their mind. That’s the only way,” he said.

“I have very little interest in Boris Johnson. He’s a charming speaker, he’s very funny, he’s charismatic.”

May stepped down as the Conservative Party’s leader on Friday and formally triggered the race for a successor — currently being contested by Johnson and 10 other MPs — but will remain prime minister until a new leader is chosen.

The entire process is expected to conclude by the end of next month.

Johnson said through his spokesman that he would be issuing no comment about his legal victory.

But he won support from other Brexit-backing ministers who are rivals for the premiership.

“Very glad to see the court case against Boris Johnson thrown out,” interior minister Sajid Javid wrote on Twitter.

Johnson’s campaign is built on the promise of getting out of the EU — with or without a deal — when the twice-delayed Brexit deadline arrives on Oct. 31.

The pitch is popular among more right-wing rank-and-file Conservatives across the country who will pick the winner from two finalists selected by MPs.