The Vote Leave campaign group has been fined £61,000 and referred to the police after an Electoral Commission inquiry found its actions broke the law.
The elections watchdog found “substantial evidence” that the pro-Brexit Vote Leave had coordinated with another supposedly independent campaign group, BeLeave, providing a £675,315 donation to the second group. This brought Vote Leave’s overall spending on the campaign over legal limit set out by the Commission of £7 million – but the donation was not accurately recorded as referendum expenditure.
Though Vote Leave and BeLeave claim to be separate entities, the Commission has ruled that they were in fact working together. "The two groups worked to a common plan, did not declare their joint working and did not adhere to the legal spending limits,” said Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission’s Legal Counsel and Director of Finance and Regulation. “These are serious breaches of the laws put in place by Parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums."
It has been revealed that the donation was used by BeLeave to pay a digital data company, Aggregate IQ, which has already received over £2.5 million directly from Vote Leave.
MPs who served on Vote Leave’s governing body include Michael Gove (then Justice Secretary) who acted as co-convenor along with Labour MP for Edgbaston Gisela Stuart.
As well as Gove, a number of other current cabinet ministers have been involved in the group, including Priti Patel, Chris Grayling, Liam Fox and Dominic Raab, while former ministers Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and Andrea Leadsom also gave their support to the campaign.
As a result of the Electoral Commission’s investigation, former Vote Leave official David Halsall has been reported to the police, as has Darren Grimes, founder of BeLeave, who is is also facing personal fines of £20,000 for spending more than £665,000 more than the £10,000 allocated to non-registered campaigners.
The Vote Leave has described the Commission report as “wholly inaccurate”, but the credibility of the campaign group has been brought into question, with Posner stating that Vote Leave “refused to cooperate” with the investigation. The group’s spokesperson rebutted that “nobody from Vote Leave has been interviewed by the Commission in the production of this report”.
The Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley has described the news as a “watershed moment” that “clearly calls into question the legitimacy of the referendum result.”
He continued: “This cannot be pushed into the long grass or glossed over with a slap on the wrist and a fine. When the very democratic process is called into question in this way then there must be consequences. If people do not have confidence in the system they can have no confidence in the result.
"There must now be a wider criminal investigation into the actions of the Vote Leave campaign. All members of the government who sat on the campaign committee of Vote Leave should resign. They can have no place in a government negotiating Brexit. And clearly any final deal that is negotiated must now be put to the British people with a People's Vote, including an option to remain in the European Union if that is the will of the British people."