LONDON (Reuters) - Judges at London’s High Court on Friday threw out an attempt to prosecute Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, for allegedly lying about the financial benefits of Brexit during the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
Last week, a magistrate agreed to issue summonses for Johnson to face charges of misconduct in public office over a claim emblazoned on his bright red “Leave” campaign bus that Britain would be 350 million pounds ($446 million) a week better off outside the EU.
Opponents had argued that the slogan was deliberately misleading and it became symbolic of the divisions caused by the referendum, which saw Britons vote 52-48% to leave the European Union.
Marcus Ball, 29, who described himself as a social enterprise founder, brought the private prosecution against Johnson in February which led to last week’s decision.
But at a judicial review hearing on Friday at the High Court, Johnson’s lawyer Adrian Darbishire said the magistrate had either erred in law or provided the wrong legal test in allowing the case to go ahead.
Darbishire said the only rational conclusion was that the case was politically motivated and therefore without merit.
The High Court judges agreed the summonses should be quashed, saying they would give their reasons at a later date.
The flamboyant Johnson, who did not attend Friday’s hearing, is the favorite among Conservative lawmakers hoping to replace May as party leader and therefore prime minister.
The case could potentially have damaged his bid to replace May, who stepped down as Conservative leader on Friday although she will remain prime minister until a successor is selected.
Friday’s challenge, brought in the former foreign minister’s full name - Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - examined whether a politician could be accused of criminal misconduct over statements made during political campaigning.
“Standing on the hustings is not the exercise of state power, and doing something naughty on the hustings is not an abuse of state power,” said Darbishire.
He said it was not for the police or juries to stray into the sphere of political debate and that it was for the electorate to decide on the truth of claims.
Ball’s overt opposition to Brexit and desire to have it stopped also showed the case had no legal merit, Darbishire added. “This is realistically, plainly speaking, a political prosecution,” he said.
After the verdict, Ball, who has raised more than 350,000 pounds through crowd-funding to pursue the prosecution, said he would mull whether to appeal, saying his case was not about stopping Brexit.
“I will not give up until I believe that all possible options are exhausted,” he said.
“If you are an elected representative and you are talking about people’s money ... it’s not correct for a member of parliament to lie to everybody about that.”
As for the 350 million claim itself, Johnson’s lawyers said he denied acting dishonestly in any way and the figure remained contentious.
“It is still being adhered to today,” Darbishire said.
($1 = 0.7842 pounds)
Editing by Stephen Addison and Andrew Cawthorne
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.