£350m EU claim disputed and voters could choose to ignore it, High Court told

Claims the UK sent £350 million a week to the EU were disputed during the referendum campaign and voters could choose to ignore them, the High Court has heard.

Lawyers for Boris Johnson told senior judges the MP, who is currently the front runner in the Conservative Party leadership contest, denies acting improperly or dishonestly when campaigning to leave the EU ahead of the historic 2016 vote.

The former foreign secretary is challenging a summons for him to attend Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where campaigner Marcus Ball is attempting to prosecute him for three allegations of misconduct in public office.

Marcus Ball
Marcus Ball

Adrian Darbishire QC, for Mr Johnson, told a hearing in London on Friday that the £350 million a week figure was disputed “as soon as it was said” and remains the subject of public debate.

He said: “It was just a political claim open to and available for contradiction and debate, and it was, and is, for the good sense of the electorate to discount it if they choose so to do.

“It is not for the CPS, judge and jury to determine the misconduct of this claim and it is not for the interested party either.”

Lady Justice Rafferty and Mr Justice Supperstone, hearing the case, are being asked to quash the decision of District Judge Margot Coleman, made on May 29, to issue a summons.

Mr Darbishire submitted the judge’s decision was an error of law and said the attempt to prosecute Mr Johnson is “politically motivated”.

He told the court: “This case clearly represented on the face of it – I will be neutral – a politically-originated … attempt to prosecute a senior politician using a common law offence for false statements in the course of public debate, a use to which that offence had never been put in this country or any common law jurisdiction.”

He added: “Standing on the hustings is not the exercise of state power, and doing something naughty on the hustings is not capable of being an abuse of state power.”

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

The barrister said an attempt to use the criminal justice system for “a political purpose” was an “extremely grave and troubling thing to do”.

In written submissions before the court, he said: “In drawing upon freely-available public statistics for the purpose of a political argument, Vote Leave, and those who supported and spoke for that campaign, were clearly not acting as public officials, nor exercising any public power.

“They made no claim to special knowledge of the sums expended by the UK, they exercised no official power in promoting that message and the assessment and publication of the level of the UK’s total EU spending formed no part of Mr Johnson’s official duties.”

He added: “It is abundantly clear that this prosecution is motivated by a political objective and has been throughout.”

Mr Ball’s lawyers contend Judge Coleman’s decision was not unlawful and say the attempted prosecution of Mr Johnson is a matter of “significant public interest”.

Jason Coppel QC, for Mr Ball, said in written submissions: “The prosecution raises an issue of significant public and political interest, interest which has been heightened by recent political events – including the candidacy of the claimant for leadership of the Conservative Party.

“But that does not establish that the motivation of the interested parties as prosecutors is improper, whether because it is a purely political motivation or otherwise.

“The entirely proper motivation for the prosecution is to hold to account a high-profile politician and holder of public office for what is alleged to be significant misconduct in relation to an issue of great public importance.”

Referring to the £350 million figure, the barrister told the court: “There is ample evidence that (Mr Johnson) did know it was a false and misleading figure.”

Mr Johnson does not have to appear and is not attending the current hearing.

Mr Ball, 29, claims Mr Johnson lied during the 2016 referendum campaign by saying Britain gave £350 million a week to the European Union.

He has crowdfunded more than £300,000 through an online campaign to bring the prosecution.

Speaking to reporters before the hearing, he said: “I’ve spent three years of my life working ridiculous hours for, per hour I believe, the minimum wage to bring this case because I believe in the merits of it.

“Somebody who was doing this to create a stunt would not act like that.”

In a written decision on May 29, District Judge Margot Coleman said she was satisfied there was a proper case to issue a summons.

The £350 million figure was emblazoned on the red campaign bus used by Vote Leave during the referendum, with the slogan saying “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”.