Court rules Electoral Commission enabled Vote Leave overspending

The High Court has said that the Electoral Commission ‘misinterpreted’ legislation around referendum campaign spending, enabling Vote Leave to donate hundreds of thousands of pounds to another pro-Brexit group without incurring expenses – actions that were later found to be against the law.

The Royal Courts of Justice in Westminster
The Royal Courts of Justice in Westminster

The Royal Courts of Justice in Westminster, which house the High Court

Green World

The High Court has officially ruled that actions taken by the Electoral Commission enabled the Vote Leave campaign group to break electoral law during the Brexit referendum.

In July, an inquiry by the Electoral Commission, the UK’s elections watchdog, found that Vote Leave had broken the law by providing a donation of more than £650,000 to Daniel Grimes, who ran a second campaign group called BeLeave. This donation, initially deemed permissible by the Commission, brought Vote Leave’s overall spending over the limit of £7 million, as the donation was used by BeLeave to pay a data company, Aggregate IQ, which also received money directly from Vote Leave.

Now, the High Court has ruled in a separate review that the Electoral Commission ‘misinterpreted’ the law around campaign spending. While the court agreed with the Commission that Vote Leave should have properly accounted for its spending with Aggregate IQ, it stated that the Commission misinterpreted the legislation around political campaign finances, in assuming at the time that the donation would not count towards referendum expenses.

"The position would have been different if the money had been given to Mr Grimes for him to use however he chose in promoting a 'leave' outcome of the referendum," noted Lord Justice Leggatt in his judgement on the case.

The review was carried out by the Good Law Project, an organisation working for law change on Brexit, tax and workers’ rights. Jo Maugham QC, the barrister at the head of the Good Law Project, said: “It is extraordinary that the body charged by Parliament with ensuring the referendum was fair, acted unlawfully to ensure it was unfair.”

The findings of the Electoral Commission back in July, and the fines imposed on Vote Leave of £61,000, led to calls for a criminal investigation into the campaign group, with some questioning the validity of the referendum result. Now, Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s Chief Executive, has demanded that the Electoral Commission retract its fine, saying the campaign group was only acting in accordance with advice from the watchdog.

“Should the Electoral Commission choose not to appeal this judgment,” he said, “they will be admitting that they gave Vote Leave incorrect advice and they should immediately reconsider the unfair fines they are seeking to impose on us because Vote Leave would not have made the donations that it did had it not been for the Commission’s clear advice.”

According to Maugham, this High Court ruling is further proof that the referendum was “unlawfully tilted… in favour of Leave”. He pointed out that because the official Remain campaign, Stronger In, didn’t receive similar advice from the Electoral Commission about its spending, “it had to stop spending. And the High Court decided that advice was wrong.”

‘The basis for #Brexit looking ever dodgier’, tweeted Labour MEP Richard Corbett, while Conservative Peer Lord Finkelstein told BBC Politics Live that it was "not a great day to be a member of the Electoral Commission".

Claire Bassett, Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission, said there had been “significant misleading comment” about the nature of the High Court ruling. “At no point did we give any advice or discuss payments to Aggregate IQ,” she said. “Suggestions made otherwise today on social media are categorically untrue. Put simply, today’s ruling states that donations from one campaign group to another are lawful, but that those donations must be declared as expenditure by the person or campaign group making the donation, if it is for a specific purpose. This is something that Vote Leave did not do.”