Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart condemn legal bid to prosecute Boris Johnson over Brexit promises
Tory leadership contenders Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart have hit out at an attempt to prosecute their opponent Boris Johnson over promises made in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.
Johnson - the current favourite to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister - has been ordered to attend court over accusations of misconduct in public office.
The private prosecution by Remain supporter Marcus Ball claims Johnson lied by saying the UK gave the EU £350m a week, something the Leave campaign promised to spend on the NHS.
Johnson's lawyers have argued the case is "a stunt".
Raab, the former Brexit Secretary who is running for the Tory leadership, raised doubts about the timing of the case.
He told ITV News: "I think the one thing I would say as a matter of principle... is that I do worry a little about the timing of this as a private prosecution, and the sense that the cut and thrust of democratic debate ought to be decided by your viewers, rather than in court.
"And I think that in order to preserve free speech and democratic debate that's something we should all think carefully and consider."
When asked if he would be willing to go to court to defend the former Foreign Secretary, Raab said: "I answered all these questions at the time. I think we made the case on the basis of net contribution.
"The gross contribution was £350 million a week, and I think this is the stuff of democratic debate.
"Of course no one has presented me with any legal challenge in relation to what I specifically said during that referendum campaign."
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, also challenging for the Conservative crown, meanwhile tweeted: "It’s completely ridiculous to try to take Boris to court in the middle of the leadership race - let’s talk policy - not personalities and prosecution. Let’s get this done."
Ball's accusation is understood to relate to the official battlebus used by the Vote Leave, which featured a claim that the UK could afford to give the NHS an extra £350m a week after Brexit by using money no longer paid into the European Union.
In a written judgement issued at Westminster Magistrates Court on Wednesday, District Judge Margot Coleman said: "The allegations which have been made are unproven accusations and I do not make any findings of fact.
"Having considered all the relevant factors I am satisfied that this is a proper case to issue the summons as requested for the three offences as drafted. The charges are indictable only.
"This means the proposed defendant will be required to attend this court for a preliminary hearing, and the case will then be sent to the Crown Court for trial. The charges can only be dealt with in the Crown Court."
A source close to Boris Johnson said: "This prosecution is nothing less than a politically-motivated attempt to reverse Brexit and crush the will of the people.
"The claimant has openly admitted that his plan is to overturn the referendum via a legal challenge and he clearly intends to try and undermine the one man who can truly deliver Brexit.
"The decision to issue a summons is extraordinary, and flies in the face of hundreds of years of British democratic tradition."