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.