Will Boris Johnson being told to answer to allegations of misconduct in a public office derail his leadership campaign? The former foreign secretary has been told he must appear in court to answer the claims, brought in a private prosecution by campaigner Marcus Ball, who objects to his claim during the referendum that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU. Today a district judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial.
This prosecution will naturally be seen by someone of Johnson’s enemies as a chance to undermine him while he’s the frontrunner in the Conservative leadership contest. But this isn’t likely to have the effect they hope. It is true that Johnson hated being branded a liar after the referendum, and his call for the government to honour the ‘NHS dividend’ which had been promised alongside that £350 million line showed that he felt he needed to set the record a little straighter. But within Tory ranks a battle for Brexiteer purity is underway, and the case is far more likely to remind the electorate who matter – Tory MPs and then the party membership – that without Boris as the face of the Vote Leave campaign, the UK may never have voted to leave the European Union.
The way Johnson campaigned in the EU referendum is not the main issue at stake when it comes to his suitability for Tory leader. His frenemy Michael Gove wants to make it about competence, arguing that the man he once backed doesn’t have the ability to deliver Brexit. Johnson’s allies are trying to counter that by ensuring that he does indeed respond to phone calls quickly and attend as many meetings with MPs as possible. To that end, he’s not doing as much national media as other candidates are, not least because he doesn’t need to introduce himself to anyone.
There is less of a concern about Johnson’s personal life than there is about his performance as Foreign Secretary. This provides ample fodder for the Gove attack line that Johnson simply isn’t up to the job of being Prime Minister. Trying to work out how to respond to that will be taking up much more of the energy of Johnson’s campaign team than the impact of a court case.