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Boris, Brexit and taking it up to political bull

  • 03 June 2019


The essay writer and nobleman Michel de Montaigne was unequivocal about the mendacious when penning his thoughts 400 years ago. In On Liars, he is punishing in judging the dissimulators and deceivers. 'Lying is indeed an accursed vice. We are men, and we have relations with one other only by speech. If we recognised the horror and gravity of an untruth, we should more justifiably punish it with fire than any other crime.'

The theme of lies often finds a home in political campaigns. Australian Labor Party voters felt that the effort made by the ultimately victorious Scott Morrison was distinctly short on the facts and heavy on the fear; death taxes, in particular, featured. The response from the Liberals was yawningly predictable: this was ample retaliation for the election campaign of 2016 marked by Labor's fibs about what a conservative government would do to Medicare.

An enduring memory of the 2016 Brexit campaign was the claim by pro-leavers that the EU was extracting some £350 million a week that would be otherwise better spent on the health of good Britons. The claim, ignoring EU subsidies, returns and contributions to Britain, was so outrageously proud and inaccurate, it stuck. It made its way onto the infamous bus used by arch Brexiteer Boris Johnson.

Which leads us to a novel citizen's experiment on the issue of lying in politics. Johnson, a leadership contender for the UK Conservatives following the resignation of Theresa May, is facing a private prosecution mounted by Remain campaigner Marcus Ball that he 'repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership'.

The argument presented by Ball's legal representative, Lewis Power QC, followed a familiar line raised by many an aggrieved voter in the past: 'when politicians lie, democracy dies'; lies spread from 'a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics ... and brings both public offices held by the (proposed) defendant into disrepute'. But Power went even further, arguing that such deceptions constituted misconduct to such a degree as to warrant sanction.

Johnson's legal team was equally familiar in their rebuttal: politics is a matter of scrapping and tussling, an untidy business of competitive claims. Truth, to that end, is often obscured. Adrian Darbishire QC, representing Johnson, described the private prosecution as a political stunt in an effort to use the criminal law 'to regulate the content and quality of political debate'. Johnson had used