False statements in political campaigns are “not new”, High Court judges who quashed a court summons for Boris Johnson have said.
The Conservative MP, who is tipped to become prime minister, was originally ordered to face charges of misconduct in public office over claims that the UK pays the EU £350m a week.
But the High Court overturned a summons issued by a district judge last month, after Mr Johnson’s lawyers argued the figure was a “political claim open to contradiction and debate”.
Laying out their reasons for the decision on Wednesday, Lady Justice Rafferty and Mr Justice Supperstone said: “The problem of false statements in the course of political campaigning is not new and has not been overlooked by parliament. For at least the last 120 or so years parliament has legislated to control certain false campaign statements which it considers an illegal practice.”
But the laws do not cover arguments used in political campaigns like the 2016 EU referendum, the judges found.
“There is no precedent for any office holder being prosecuted for misconduct in public office for wilfully making or endorsing a misleading statement in and for the purposes of political campaigning,” their ruling added.
It said that allegations that Mr Johnson knew Vote Leave’s £350m-a-week claim, which was emblazoned on the side of a bus, was false would not amount to neglect of duties or the abuse of state power.
A 2016 Electoral Commission report predicted that opposing sides of the Brexit debate would contest each other’s claims but said it was the “role of campaigners to debate the relative merits of their arguments”.
“Even official data can and will be presented by campaigners in a way that favours their argument – that is the nature of political campaigns,” the report added. “It will not always be possible to establish the truth about campaign claims in an independent truly objective sense.”
Adrian Darbishire QC, who represented Mr Johnson, had told the High Court it was “abundantly clear that this prosecution is motivated by a political objective and has been throughout”.
On 29 May, District Judge Margot Coleman had thrown out his argument that the case was a “vexatious” attempt to undermine the result of the 2016 referendum.
But the High Court judges said they could “detect no reasoning to support her conclusion”.
Their ruling said that 29-year-old Marcus Ball, who raised more than £300,000 through crowdfunding campaigns for the private prosecution, had deleted large parts of his social media history.
The judges highlighted posts on Mr Ball’s 2016 crowdfunding website that discussed numerous legal options to “prevent Brexit”, and said Mr Ball had called himself “pro-Remain” and backed a second referendum in media interviews.
“The passage of time since 2016 was no answer to the claimant’s detailed submission that the political motive for the prosecution is apparent,” their ruling said.
“Though it is not necessary, we would also have quashed the decision [to summons Mr Johnson to court] on the basis that the finding that the prosecution was not vexatious was flawed.”
Mr Ball said he was considering whether launch an appeal against the High Court’s ruling.
He described himself as “very happy” after reading the full judgment, adding: “My legal team and I will carefully review it before making our decision as to what precisely we will do next.”
Mr Johnson is currently the favourite to become leader of the Conservative Party and succeed Theresa May as prime minister, and his political supporters had condemned the decision to summons him for a potential criminal trial.
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