Boris Johnson's leadership ambitions hit snag with UK court date

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Former London mayor and Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson. (Ben Stansall, AFP)
Former London mayor and Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson. (Ben Stansall, AFP)

Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions were dealt an embarrassing setback when a London judge ruled that he must attend court to face allegations of misconduct in public office.

Conservative Party favourite Johnson will face a preliminary hearing and then a criminal trial, District Judge Margot Coleman said Wednesday, allowing an unprecedented private prosecution attempt to proceed against the politician. Johnson will be required to answer accusations that he made false claims about British spending on the European Union, she said.

"Whether the prosecution ultimately succeeds against Mr. Johnson is perhaps less important than the symbolic value of today’s events," Andrew Smith, a lawyer at Corker Binning, said in an email. "Any person, whether holding high office or not, can rapidly become a defendant in a criminal prosecution."

It normally takes three to four weeks after a court summons is issued for an individual to appear. No date has yet been set for Johnson’s appearance.

The attempt to privately prosecute Johnson is an embarrassment for the politician, coming shortly after he launched his bid to succeed Theresa May as Tory leader and prime minister. "The allegations which have been made are unproven accusations and I do not make any findings of fact," the judge said.

The charges can only be dealt with in a higher criminal court, Coleman said.Campaigner Marcus Ball is trying to bring charges against the lawmaker over his "infamous" claim that the UK sent £350m per week to the EU - one of the central tenets of the 2016 Brexit campaign. Ball’s legal team said last week that Johnson had acted in a "irresponsible and dishonest" manner and engaged in criminal behaviour.

Johnson’s lawyer Adrian Darbishire said at an earlier hearing that it is "absolutely denied that he acted in an improper or dishonest manner at any time." Lawyers for Johnson didn’t respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday. "This application is brought for political purposes," Johnson’s legal team said last week, calling it a political stunt.

Possible Paths

Smith said that private prosecutions have increased in the last decade because of the low threshold of evidence needed to get a summons. Johnson’s lawyers can still try to stop the case from advancing.

The judge’s decision can be reviewed by the High Court, Corker Binning’s Smith said. The public prosecutor also has the option of taking over the case, and shutting it down should its officials find there’s no case to answer.

Ball, a 29-year-old former founder of technology companies, has been attempting to crowdfund the prosecution. He said he’d considered targeting individuals from both sides of the Brexit debate before deciding on Johnson.

The 350 million-pound spending claim was painted on the side of the Vote Leave bus and cited repeatedly during the Brexit campaign. The figure was discredited by the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, which called it "highly misleading."

Johnson "knew the figure was wrong still he chose to repeat it over and over and over," Lewis Power, a lawyer for the private prosecutor, said last week.

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