Claims of overspending in the Brexit campaign received new attention as former Vote Leave and BeLeave volunteers claimed that elements of the official Brexit campaign conspired to exceed spending limits, and tamper with evidence. It brings attention to the weakness of the UK’s electoral laws.
During the week of March 12 three former Brexit campaigners submitted evidence to the Electoral Commission alleging that Vote Leave — the official Brexit campaign — was in fact coordinating funding with BeLeave for the purpose of exceeding campaign spending limits. One of the three: Shahmir Sanni gave his account to Channel 4, alleging that legally independent Brexit group BeLeave was in fact subordinate to Vote Leave. Specifically, that Vote Leave national organiser and now advisor to the PM Stephen Parkinson helped run BeLeave as a subsidiary of Vote Leave:
‘there was no time where anything BeLeave did didn’t go through Stephen … I sought advice, as did Darren’.
Sani alleged in the Observer that Cleo Watson, also a political advisor to Theresa May and a director at Vote Leave, made arrangements for BeLeave to be set up as a separate organisation in order to circumvent spending limits. Furthermore, Darren Grimes, BeLeave’s founder was given legal responsibility despite not directing the change:
‘He [the Vote Leave lawyer Watson referred them to] said the only way to get the money was to set [BeLeave] up as a separate organisation. So, we were like: “Ok, cool. How do we do that?” And so he wrote up the constitution for us. And Darren put his own name on it because that’s what he was told to do’.
If true, this would mean Vote Leave, the Brexit campaign that cabinet ministers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were intimately involved in, could be prosecuted under article 118(2) of the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act 2000 for ‘exceeding limits on referendum expenses’. However, this violation of electoral law carries no jail term, with the maximum penalty being a fine. It is of potential concern that the legislation designed to prevent elections in the UK being bought, carries only the penalty of a fine.
In an effort to defend himself Stephen Parkinson suggested that Sanni’s testimony alone was not reliable because the two had been in a relationship.
‘[being in a relationship] is the capacity in which I gave Shahmir advice and encouragement, and I can understand if the lines became blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups … I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations during the referendum, and am confident that Vote Leave acted entirely within the law and strict spending rules at all times’.
However, Parkinson’s defence ignored that Sanni was one of three who submitted evidence to the Electoral Commission on alleged breaches of electoral law by Vote Leave.
Vote Leave co-founder Dominic Cummings also launched into a riposte to the allegations, writing in his blog:
‘Dear Observer, Channel 4, Fair Vote, you are an absolute bunch of charlatans — start getting ready for Brexit, your weak Zoolander story is going nowhere’.
The defence of the Leave campaign has however been undercut by revelations on March 25. Part of the evidence submitted to the Electoral Commission and to the Observer includes correspondence showing BeLeave invoicing Vote Leave for expenses, and BeLeave receiving advice from Vote Leave lawyers, accountants, and other personnel on how to operate. Further, Sanni found a Google Drive setup between key Vote Leave and BeLeave personnel. The youth campaign group here shared content with Dominic Cummings; Vote Leave campaign director, Victoria Woodcock; Vote Leave operations director, Henry de Zoete and; Vote Leave digital director, and representatives of analytics firm Aggregate IQ. The Observer published the following not as an accusation by Sanni, but as fact:
‘What Sanni realised was that on 17th March, 2017, Victoria Woodcock, the chief operation officer of Vote Leave, went through the drive and deleted herself, Cummings and Vote Leave’s digital director Henry de Zoete, from more than 100 files. However the system logged a record of her activity’.
This is potentially a more serious breach of the Referendums Act 2000. Under section 148(1) ‘alteration of documents’, tampering with evidence relating to elections and referendums carries a maximum one year jail term.
The mildness of penalties relating to electoral fraud are particularly boggling when compared to penalties for non-electoral fraud. Under the Fraud Act 2006, ‘obtaining services dishonestly’ carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment.
As the saga drags on, and investigations into Cambridge Analytica’s actions during the referendum also play out, the United Kingdom’s electoral system appears impotent. Michael Crick, Channel 4’s political correspondent concluded the programme saying:
‘[The] Electoral Commission, much like the Information Commissioner with our earlier allegations this week involving Cambridge Analytica, [are] short on resources and they’re short on powers. They can’t for instance overturn the referendum result … they could fine Vote Leave but that would be fairly meaningless given Vote Leave were only there to fight this one particular referendum. They could I suppose refer matters to the police or crown prosecution service’.
Whatever the outcome of the Electoral Commission’s investigation, it appears that conspiring to break the nation’s electoral laws is a crime punishable by little more than a parking ticket.