“We send the EU £350m a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”.
The infamous Vote Leave slogan, painted on the side of a bright red bus, quickly became a symbol of all that was wrong with the Brexit referendum campaign.
Criticised as a “clear misuse of official statistics” by the UK Statistics Authority, even Nigel Farage admitted the figures were wrong in the days after the June 2016 vote.
While voters on both sides expressed disgust that veteran politicians would campaign in front of a blatant lie, a 26-year-old named Marcus Ball decided to take matters into his own hands.
He wanted to hold someone to account – and that someone, he felt, should be Boris Johnson.
“It was the day of the referendum result, I was looking at how that result came to be, I was looking at different claims made on both sides. Three days afterwards, I decided there must be a legal solution in terms of lying about use of public funds on a sizeable project,” Ball, now 29, told HuffPost UK.
“We looked at several different people on both sides, we whittled it down until eventually, we just got to one target.”
On Tuesday, Ball and five legal representatives are bringing a private prosecution against Johnson at Westminster Magistrates Court.
Ball is alleging that Johnson “abused public trust by repeatedly making claims to the public of a financial nature which he knew to be false, in an attempt to deceive the public”.
He spent two years preparing the case and to date has raised more than £400,000 to fund the legal action. Solicitors Bankside Commercial are bringing prosecution on his behalf, and they have retained the services of Lewis Power QC and two other barristers from Church Court Chambers to handle the case.
Under the name Brexit Justice, the team of six is seeking to make it illegal for a member of public office to lie to the public about spending figures.
It is hoped that the campaign will proceed to criminal charges for misconduct in public office, an offence which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Ball said he wants to “see a fair trial and for justice to take its course.
“The final result can only be determined by the judge and, depending upon the circumstances, potentially a jury.”
Johnson has not been summoned by a judge, and Ball says this is purely a legal case – not an opportunity for political point-scoring.
“He is innocent until proven guilty,” Ball said.
“We just have to be really sure that we send out a message to everybody that this is a sensitive matter and we can’t treat it like a Brexit news story.”
He thought about taking on a bigger case, targeting more people, but later decided against it based on the legal advice he received, he said.
Between then-Chancellor George Osborne’s warning about a Brexit-induced recession, to Michael Gove’s assertion about “holding all the cards” and a strong negotiating position, it’s fair to say things aren’t going the way many people predicted or promised.
But Ball said Johnson was an ideal target for the first ever case of this kind, because of the two public offices he held at the time of campaigning: as the Mayor of London up until a few weeks before the vote, and as the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Both Leave and Remain politicians distanced themselves from the former foreign secretary, including then-Brexit secretary David Davis. But Johnson doubled down, writing in a 4,000-word column for the Daily Telegraph in 2017: ”Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week.”
From a prosecution point of view, Johnson’s high profile and widely-publicised campaign antics have been easy to gather as evidence to build Ball’s case.
Yet, as Ball and his team bulldoze ahead, not all agree that he has a case on his hands. Barrister blogger Matthew Scott labelled the move an “ill-conceived publicity stunt” and an “abuse of the criminal law” in a post last year.
The case, as one would expect, has been pretty costly. Through four crowdfunding efforts, Ball has raised almost £400,000, and is in the process of raising more. More than 9,000 people have chipped in financially.
But how did Ball, who describes himself as a “social enterprise founder”, get here?
Growing up in Norwich amid the debate about the Iraq war, he said he “came across this idea that it was possible that the country had been led to war by false claims made by politicians.”
Those seeds were later watered at age 20, when Ball said he voted for the Liberal Democrats on Nick Clegg’s “no more broken promises” ticket.
“There was a video which was particularly impactful to me, it featured Nick Clegg walking around London and around the UK repeating this phrase,” he told HuffPost UK.
“What was the first thing he did when he became deputy prime minister? He broke his promise and he voted in favour of raising tuition fees.”
Ball added: “There are a series of events in recent history and throughout history which demonstrate that when politicians lie, enormous damage can befall everybody else.
“When the referendum happened, it was just too far, too blatant, too staring you in the face, so I decided I had to do something about that.”
In the beginning, there was quite a lot of animosity and people were quite angry...but I think people understand now what it is I’m actually trying to do
Ball is not a student of law, but of history, and previously worked on a series of higher education startups as part of his mission to “create ventures which exist to solve societal problems.”
In 2016, he set up a petition to make ‘essay writing mills’ illegal.
“The overriding theme of my work is I want to try and change societal problems. I want to try and challenge things which occur in society all the time, which most people just don’t try and go up against,” he said.
Now fully engrossed in the campaign, Ball describes the effort as “more than a full time job”. He pays himself a salary of around £24,000 from the crowdfunder, and moved to west London to dedicate his full time to the case.
But it is unlikely to be his last.
He said: “In the beginning, there was quite a lot of animosity and people were quite angry, I think because Brexit heat was still present and people were still politically-charged, and I think they are now, to an extent, but I think people understand now what it is I’m actually trying to do.”
“The next case I do, I want to have a team with me at all times. I’ve been at it for three years and it’s been fully exhausting.”
HuffPost UK has contacted Johnson’s office for comment.