This time next year, will Boris Johnson be installed in No 10 as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and First Lord of the Treasury?
Or will he be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, dispensing coffee in the prison canteen and running journalism lessons for fellow jailbirds while waiting for his next visit from the ever-loyal Jacob Rees-Mogg?
I suppose the first outcome is rather more likely. But that we can imagine the second eventuality illustrates the sheer madness of yesterday’s ruling that Boris must be carted off to court to answer charges of misconduct in public office.
In particular, he is accused of lying when, during the run-up to the June 2016 referendum and before the 2017 General Election, he claimed Britain gives the EU £350 million a week. The Leave campaign’s bus carried a similar slogan.
Will Boris Johnson be installed in No 10 as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and First Lord of the Treasury?
If the charges are upheld, Boris faces unlimited fines or any term of imprisonment at the discretion of the court. I wonder whether, if he were to emerge blinking from the prison gate in five years’ time, the Brexit saga would still be driving us mad.
What began as a serious political debate about the future of our country has descended first into acrimony and then into chaos before taking on the character of a full-blown farce.
The instigator of the latest episode in the farce is Marcus Ball, described in court papers as the applicant, while the proposed defendant is none other than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Mr Ball is a Remainer activist who has been plotting a private prosecution against Mr Johnson (I must try to stop calling him Boris) after taking exception to the outcome of the referendum. He has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds through crowd-funding to bring his case.
If you had asked sensible people whether a 29-year-old businessman and entrepreneur — namely Mr Ball — could successfully land Mr Johnson in a court of law on a criminal charge, they might have recommended a strong cup of tea and a long lie-down.
But they would have reckoned without District Judge Margot Coleman, who yesterday ruled that Mr Johnson will be ‘sent to Crown Court for trial’ to answer Mr Ball’s extraordinary charges. This is a serious business.
One might have hoped that a judge, even one not many rungs from the bottom of the judicial ladder, would have regarded Mr Ball’s application as politically driven, vexatious and slightly dotty. But no.
Let’s examine the veracity of what Mr Johnson and the Leave bus claimed about £350 million a week. Is it true? Not really. Very roughly, the UK pays the equivalent of this figure to Brussels but, give or take varying amounts in different years, gets a rebate of around £100 million a week.
The instigator of the latest episode in the farce is Marcus Ball (pictured at Westminster Magistrates Court)
In fact, to be pedantic, it does not happen like that. The money isn’t sent to Brussels only for Whitehall to wait for part of it to be sent back. A net figure, which amounts to very approximately £250 million a week, is agreed.
This is nonetheless an enormous sum of money which would have made a big impression on people’s minds. Why couldn’t the Leave campaign settle for that? It is a great mystery. It’s stupid to bend the truth when it is so striking.
Various people have been blamed — foremost among them Dominic Cummings, the maverick campaign director of Vote Leave — for this foolish and unnecessary travesty of what was accurate.
What is certain is that Mr Johnson did not dream it up himself. He simply seized the incorrect figure with relish, and repeated it. But so did many others including Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, both of them candidates, along with Mr Johnson, for the Tory leadership.
Of course, it was unwise of him to do this, the more so as he has earned the reputation, not entirely undeserved, of sometimes being a bit free and easy with the truth. People will have to make up their own minds as to how serious this particular lapse was.
What began as a serious political debate about the future of our country has descended first into acrimony
To my view, it shows Boris Johnson being typically broad-brush, and ignoring what seems to him boring detail as he works up an argument. This is a tendency he will have to watch if he becomes prime minister — or he will become badly unstuck.
But it should be no business of the courts to turn it into a question of law. If every politician who had ever told a whopper were prosecuted, we would have to build a lot more prisons.
One should also note, in a spirit of fairness, the false predictions — I won’t call them lies — of some Remainers before the referendum, most notably the then Chancellor, George Osborne.
He assured us that a Leave vote would cause a recession, a rise in unemployment of 500,000 over two years, and a sharp contraction in the size of the economy. None of these things happened.
Wild statements were made on both sides in the course of electioneering. I’m afraid politicians of all hues perennially tell fibs when trying to get our vote. This undoubtedly happened in the run-up to the referendum.
Yet it seems almost certain that neither Mr Johnson nor Mr Osborne nor anyone else was breaking the law.
Judge Coleman rightly cited the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which ‘observed as long ago as 1998 that the Government does not participate in general elections or referendum campaigns’.
In other words, although he was Mayor of London until May 2016, Boris Johnson was not campaigning on behalf of the Government but as a politician seeking public support.
Unfortunately, having observed this important distinction, the judge then proceeded to ignore it, and despatched Mr Johnson to the Crown Court to answer the serious charge of misconduct in public office.
By the way, it is worth noting that Tony Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell — much in the news at the moment — was responsible for the famous ‘dodgy dossier’ in February 2003 which plagiarised excerpts from a 12-year-old thesis by an Iraqi dissident without attribution.
Spatchcocked together by Campbell’s team, the dossier was represented by Mr Blair in the Commons as fresh work produced by the intelligence services, and approvingly cited by the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, at the United Nations.
I would have thought that if anyone had a serious case to answer about possible misconduct in public office, it is Mr Campbell rather than Mr Johnson.
Needless to say, we want politicians to tell the truth, whether they are governing us or electioneering. But it is a sinister development if the courts are to assess their veracity, and punish them if they are deemed to have erred. It’s the role of the media to highlight mendacity — and ultimately for voters to decide what to do.
I assume Mr Johnson’s lawyers will appeal, and I hope a more thoughtful judge will conclude that this is a politically motivated case which shouldn’t come to court. There is a stark warning here about the inadvisability of the judiciary becoming involved in the political process.
As for Boris Johnson, I doubt this case will undermine his dream of becoming prime minister. But it will have served some purpose if it makes him more scrupulous than he has been about telling the truth.
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