I have often wondered what would happen if politicians were bound by the same rules as advertisers, or if manifestos were brought within the scope of the trading standards laws. What if we could take legal action against a government for failing to provide the extra NHS beds or school places they had promised? Given the propensity for governments to excuse themselves from their own legislation when it suits them – Blair’s government simply passed a clause excluding political parties when Labour’s women-only shortlists fell foul of sex discrimination legislation – it is hard to imagine such a law being passed by Parliament. But on 14 May, Westminster Magistrates will hear an attempt to create one through political precedent. The court will consider a case brought by a private prosecutor Marcus Ball, and crowdfunded through £370,000 of donations, to try to prosecute Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office on the basis that he allegedly made statements he knew to be false during the Brexit referendum campaign – in particular the old chestnut about Britain sending £350 million a week to the EU.
I am sure that to Ball and his donors it all seems a good wheeze, but they should beware of what they wish for. Perhaps they honestly believe that the Leave campaign had a monopoly on questionable claims made during the campaign, but if so they are deluding themselves.
If Boris does get marched into court to explain himself – which is a far from foregone conclusion – he won’t be the last politician to make that journey. Next in the dock, surely, will be George Osborne for his claim that a vote for Brexit would result in unemployment rising by between 500,000 and 800,000 within two years (in the event unemployment fell to a 45 year low). And what about Nick Clegg who claimed in 2016 that the brief disappearance of Marmite from the shelves in 2016 in a contractual dispute between the manufacturers and Tesco was a foretaste of food shortages to come if we leave the EU without a trade deal? Both claims might struggle to stand up to examination that they were based on sound facts and reasoning.
If we are going to conduct politics in the courts there is really no end of possibilities, but it is clear who would have the upper hand: people with the funds available to fight such cases.
Ball and his cronies might be satisfied with themselves for having raised £370,000 for their cases, but that is a pitiful sum compared with the funds which large corporations would have available to fight such cases, should they be minded to do so.
Does Ball really fancy the prospect, say, of an oil company taking an MP to court for making the false claim – not substantiated by scientific evidence – that hurricanes have got stronger thanks to climate change?
We exempt politics from laws which protect us from commerce for a reason – if we fought politics in the courts we would hand huge power to the wealthy. It is the Left, at present, which seems keenest to use the courts to further their aims. But ultimately the winners would be billionaires and multinational corporations.