Tory leadership race: Boris Johnson in profile

Boris Johnson in court over the £350m on the bus? That will only help make him our next prime minister

Political disagreements should not be fought out in court – and this case will only boost the frontrunner’s popularity among Conservative Party members

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Wednesday 29 May 2019 14:33

Have the Remainers learned absolutely nothing from the referendum campaign and the three years since?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of politics and arithmetic knows that the claim “We send £350m a week to the EU” was incorrect. But anyone with a basic knowledge of politics knows that the more indignant the Remain campaign became, insisting correctly that the actual figure was about half that, the more it helped draw attention to the UK making a net contribution to the EU too large for anyone to grasp.

The same will happen yet again with the private prosecution of Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office over the £350m claim spelt out on the side of a campaign bus. As leader of the Leave campaign, Johnson has now been summonsed to appear in court before the case is sent to trial.

Presumably, nothing will happen until after the leadership election, which is expected to conclude in July – by which time Johnson might be prime minister, or not. But this case, which Leavers will regard (with some justification) as an intrusion by the law into politics, will only boost Johnson’s campaign with Conservative Party members.

I am surprised the judge today refused to throw the case out. It seems to be part of a bad trend, to resort to law to fight political disagreements.

People are selective about this. A lot of them think Tony Blair should be in court for pursuing a foreign policy they disagreed with; but a lot of the same people think it is disgraceful that Donald Trump should lead his supporters in chants of “lock her up” about “crooked Hillary”. Many of the same people were also horrified when the crowds at Brexit Party rallies during the European election campaign starting chanting “lock her up” about “traitor Theresa May” for betraying Brexit.

This is not how political debate should be conducted, whichever side you are on.

Of course, everyone has to obey the law, including people in public office – which Boris Johnson wasn’t during the 2016 referendum, except as MP for Uxbridge. But making factually incorrect claims during political campaigns is not itself against the law.

It would not be wise to bring the courts in to adjudicate such matters. What about Labour’s claim that the Conservatives want to privatise the health service? That’s not true, but do we really want the courts to decide what hyperbolic claims are permissible and what are not? And if we did, would it not have the effect that this attempted prosecution will have, of generating publicity for the side of the argument favouring the defendant?

I don’t know what effect this case will have on MPs in the first stage of the Conservative leadership election, but it will only strengthen Johnson’s support among party members if he makes it to the final ballot.

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