Kathy Sheridan: What are odds of successfully suing Boris Johnson for lying?
Big political lies such as those in Brexit blight democracy by killing voters’ trust
A young man from Norfolk, Marcus J Ball, is on a mission to sue a politician for telling lies. How romantic is that? He claims that Boris Johnson’s infamous campaign statement that “we send £350 million a week to the EU” was a lie and since Johnson remained an MP during that time, that it constituted the serious criminal offence of “misconduct in public office”. What Ball wants, in short, is “. . . to set a legal precedent in the UK common law that prevents political leaders from lying to the public in future”.
It would be the first case of its kind in the democratic world. According to barrister blogger, Matthew Scott, Ball has put together a pretty convincing argument “on the face of it” that the Johnson statement was intentionally misleading, if not an outright lie. So, you may be asking, what took so long?
The cynical answer is that lying and dissembling are just what politicians do.
But the obvious truth is that big political lies about public policy blight democracy not only by potentially ruining lives but by killing trust in democracy itself. So it’s surely worth a punt. Ball kept it simple by focusing on Johnson. But there were plenty of seriously misleading campaign statements out there, such as Michael Gove’s “the day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want”. Were they lies? Or unicorns? Freedom of speech? The irrational exuberance of any political campaign?
I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same . . .
Look where we are. When Theresa May turned up in Salzburg last week, she was offering a “deal” she and everyone else already knew was doomed. The Daily Telegraph’s main headline had already pronounced it “as dead as a dodo”. Still, EU leaders were supposed to carry her with honeyed, political words safely to the Tory annual conference next week. They finally ran out of patience.
Macron cut loose at Brexiters, calling them “liars” while Tusk joked about a cake with no cherries. It was hardly statesmanlike but it had the virtue of honest truth. Yet Nick Robinson, a presenter of the agenda-setting BBC Radio 4 Today show, preferred to characterise it as the “Salzburg slap in the face”. He was far from alone in setting May up as a kind of martyr to sweet rationality. The more the British politicians stumble over their own egos, lies and incompetence, the more patriotic it is to drive them on apparently.
Jingoism and ignorance
The nonsense continued with the awe accorded to May’s hammily furious, post-Salzberg speech “I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same . . .” One usually sane commentator deemed it the Brexit era’s version of Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches . . .”
To be clear. Churchill’s speech came after Hitler’s invasion of Poland and Norway, followed a few weeks later by the fall of France and total war.
May’s speech came after a ridiculous referendum that revelled in lies, sofa-bound Guns of Navarone jingoism, and ignorance. It followed gunboat threats on Spain, the hubristic invocation of article 50; and the multiple non-negotiable red lines of the Lancaster House address, exultantly distilled in the Times as, “Give us [a] fair deal or you’ll be crushed”. Her first negotiating salvo was a threat to withdraw military and defence co-operation. Her buffoon of a foreign secretary predictably said things such as Europe could “go whistle” for any divorce settlement and compared the future EU-UK land border to a couple of London boroughs. There were serious attempts to divide and conquer member states.
You run the risk that a single-issue activist will bring a private prosecution and fanatics would delight in silencing their political opponents
Even now, her newbie Brexit secretary clownishly threatens to renege on the divorce settlement every few weeks. Just days before Salzburg, her environment secretary casually suggested that any EU-Chequers deal could be a temporary little arrangement anyway (you know they can hear you over in Brussels, Mr Gove?). In Salzburg for one of the most important pitches of her own and her country’s life, May read her lines from a newspaper article already available on the streets.
Founded on lies
So in retrospect, “respect” is not quite correct. It’s as if the massive incongruity between the gloating “we hold all the cards” and “those EU meanies are being big bullies” is not blindingly obvious to everyone out here.
Since the entire debacle was founded on lies, Marcus Ball’s private prosecution seems timely. Apparently, one queen’s counsel has advised there are “reasonable prospects” for conviction. Matthew Scott, however, has no faith in the case. Worse, he calls it an ill-conceived publicity stunt and an abuse of criminal law.
The courts, he argues, “have rightly gone out of their way to protect freedom of speech during elections” and the case would have a chilling effect on debate; get a fact wrong and your opponent will demand your arrest. Either way, you run the risk that a single-issue activist will bring a private prosecution and fanatics would delight in silencing their political opponents.
He also argues that politicians debating policy are by definition making their points – honest or dishonest – publicly, where they are scrutinised. And that the £350-million claim was refuted in the referendum campaign as often as it was made. True, but an attractively simple statement/lie repeated over and over is never as simple to refute.
Go on, Marcus J Ball, have a go.