Boris Johnson to go to trial for lying to the public

Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and foreign minister who has been trying to inveigle his way to the prime ministership for the longest time, is to go on trial for repeating an egregious lie that was at the heart of the 2016 Brexit campaign.

In an unprecedented ruling issued here on Wednesday, a judge has paved the way for Boris Johnson to stand trial for a false claim that was at the very center of the Brexit campaign. The Vote Leave campaign bus was emblazoned with the slogan: “We send the EU £350m a week.” The independent U.K. Statistics Authority said the figure was misleading and the Institute for Fiscal Studies argued it was “absurd,” and yet Vote Leave, and Johnson in particular, continued to use the number throughout the hotly contested Brexit referendum in 2016.

To the shock of the British political establishment, a judge agreed Wednesday that Johnson, the former Conservative mayor of London, should face trial for deliberately lying to the public. “It is alleged that the conduct of which the proposed defendant is accused was a huge lie calculated to mislead the electorate by using inaccurate and misleading statements,” District Judge Margot Coleman wrote in her written statement.

The judge in London said the campaigner Marcus Ball, who raised $250,000 to bring the case, had provided “ample evidence” that Johnson was knowingly misleading the public. For example, Johnson said Britain sent the EU around £10 ($12) billion per year during a TV interview in May 2016, which was around half of the controversial £350 ($450) million a week figure.

“I accept that the public offices held by Mr. Johnson provide status but with that status comes influence and authority,” she wrote. “[Ball’s lawyer] submits there will be seldom a more serious misconduct allegation against a member of Parliament or mayor than to lie repeatedly to the voting public on a national and international platform, in order to win your desired outcome. I am satisfied this element of the offense is prima facie satisfied.”

The reason it is a ‘shock’ to the political establishment is that they are so used to lying and getting away with it. If they all were taken to trial, our courts would be clogged for years. Of course, there should be safeguards to prevent frivolous lawsuits. The lie should be on a public matter, the lie should be considered to have carried substantive weight, and the speaker should have known it was a lie and spoken with a reckless disregard for the truth.

In the US, the First Amendment protects even blatant lying. I seem to recall that some years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations could not be sued for false advertising, not a surprising ruling since corporations have many of the rights of people. So it is highly likely that political lying is considered protected speech in the US. In the UK, this restriction does not apply and the charge against Johnson is based on a 13th century legal concept against ‘misconduct in public office’ and can be used against someone who willfully neglected to perform their duties to such an extent that it abused the public trust in the office holder. In theory, the penalty can be life imprisonment.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, if politicians were routinely charged for lying about substantive issues, jails would be jam packed.

  2. Richard Dykema says

    As an American who happened to come across this blog, I wanted to let you know that American corporations (and individuals) can be and indeed are sued or prosecuted for false advertising. Trump University is a good example. Commercial speech is given less Constitutional protection in the U.S. than political speech. But yes, when it comes to political speech, even blatant lying is protected under the First Amendment.

  3. blf says

    some years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations could not be sued for false advertising

    Eh? There are both the FTC “truth-in-advertising” laws / regulations, and also the Lanham Act. And as I recall, the dangerous lying of the patent medicine quacks led to the creation of the FDA.

    It’s possible there was one or more cases which went broadly as recalled (“it’s Ok”), but whose rulings were addressed (to a certain extent) by new / revised laws?

    My own recollection concerns Ronaddled Raygun, who “promised” to revoke the FTC’s then fairly new truth-in-advertising law(? regulations?), only to be told by business, “No, no, please don’t!” Apparently, what happened is after being required for a few years to not lie in advertising, business discovered (potential-)customers were more likely to pay attention to the ad and possibly make a decision based on it, then before when a prudent person would assume the ad contained lies.

    Like, duh…

  4. Sam N says

    @1, I’m not sure about the UK, but if it were the USA, our jails would probably be much lighter. After all there are far fewer politicians than black people that smoke a joint now and then and are given heavy sentences thanks to frenzy whipped up by lying politicians.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I have been trying to recall the case where the courts said that a company could not be sued for lying. I have not been able to find it now. It may have been narrowly ruled. I’ll keep searching.

  6. Richard Dykema says

    Nope, that case says no such thing. Companies and individuals are indeed sued and prosecuted in the U.S. for false advertising. Commercial speech is not given the same level of protection as commercial speech.

  7. Richard Dykema says

    Sorry, meant commercial speech is not given the same level of protection as political speech.

  8. Kimpatsu1000 says

    The 1st Amendment is not a protection against perjury, and politicians lying to the public should be treated as committing perjury.

  9. Mano Singham says


    Thanks but that was not the case I seem to recall. I’ll keep looking.

  10. Richard Dykema says

    Perjury in the U.S.(maybe the U.K., too?) is lying under oath in an in official proceeding or document, such as President Clinton lying under oath about what he did with Monica Lewinsky.

    And political speech would still be protected in the U.S. under the First Amendment, even if you tried to call it perjury.

  11. KG says

    Of course, there should be safeguards to prevent frivolous lawsuits.

    That’s the issue that spoils the schadenfreude I and many others naturally feel at seeing the liar Boris Johnson actually facing the remote possibility of adequate conseqences for his lies. (He’s already twice lost a job, once as a journalist and once as a government minister, for lying.) This prosecution was crowd-funded, but there are many rich right-wing scumbags who could fund such a prosecution out of their pocket change. Our libel laws already give such people a powerful weapon in defence of privilege.

    In practice, I doubt the prosecution against Johnson will get far. While it is in prospect, it’s at least as likely to help as to hurt his campaign to lead the Tories and hence become PM; but then again, an unprincipled narcissistic opportunist might be preferable to some of the real Brexit headbangers such as Raab or McVey.

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