SOCIALISTS can be forgiven a moment of celebration at news that the frontrunner for next leader of the Tory Party, Boris Johnson, must go to court on a charge of lying to the public.
The private prosecution rests on Johnson’s claim that Britain sends £350 million a week to the European Union. Businessman Marcus Ball, who brings the prosecution, points to inconsistencies in the figures Johnson used during the campaign.
It is absolutely clear that the key players in 2016’s referendum were not models of probity.
From a ruling-class perspective the EU referendum was a tremendous gamble. Then prime minister David Cameron said leaving the EU would be choosing a “self-destruct” option for Britain.
Then chancellor George Osborne said it would cause the economy “an immediate and profound shock” (a claim, as economists including Larry Elliott and Bill Mitchell have pointed out, which has not proven accurate).
Cameron and Osborne had never planned on holding a referendum on EU membership. The promise made was a bid to appease their own backbenchers, intended to be traded away in a renewed coalition with the Lib Dems.
But the Lib Dem implosion which returned the Tory majority government of 2015-17 forced the PM to honour his tongue-in-cheek pledge. Even then, Cameron did not take the prospect of Leave winning seriously, barring civil servants from planning for Leave scenarios and assuming with his characteristic arrogance that the British people would do what they were told.
What many Leave supporters have not woken up to is that Johnson’s behaviour was equally two-faced. He too assumed Remain would win, but felt his own Tory leadership prospects would be enhanced by a harmless bit of anti-EU posturing.
Exposing Johnson’s dishonest politics is absolutely necessary in the struggle ahead, in which we may well face him as the Tory PM our movement has to bring down. But the socialist left should not trust to legal sanctions to achieve political ends.
Few Remain supporters — biologist Richard Dawkins is one — openly state that they do not regard the British public as being capable of making decisions on complex matters like leaving the EU.
But Dawkins differs from some fellow Remainers simply in being more honest. Much of the rhetoric about Leave having won because people were lied to implies a similar lack of confidence in ordinary people’s ability to make informed decisions. After all, lies are told during every general election campaign. Patronising the public in this way has risks.
We have just had a European election in which the Brexit Party’s strong showing indicated the anger of millions at Parliament’s refusal to implement the result of the referendum. There is a risk that the law appearing to target Johnson could make him a martyr for the Leave cause and increase his popularity.
Is his £350 million claim more serious than Esther McVey misleading Parliament over universal credit? More serious than a charity in receipt of government funding, the Institute for Statecraft, apparently working to smear the leader of the opposition?
This prosecution could do some good, if it makes politicians — whose lies have become more brazen and routine — think twice about deliberately spreading untruths. But if it gives the impression that the courts are selectively clamping down on Leave supporters it could serve to increase popular resentment.
If the left is associated with a legal battle to silence Johnson, rather than a political battle to defeat him, it could be a target of that resentment.
There is no substitute for the hard political work of winning people away from right-wing politics and to an understanding that only socialism will address the catastrophic inequality and insecurity that stalk our nations.
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