Vote Leave broke electoral law and British democracy is shaken

The record is not encouraging over whether senior Tory Brexiters will be held to account

Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 after being found guilty of breaking electoral law during the Brexit campaign. Two people have been referred to the police. But with this initial investigation concluded, Britain faces a difficult period of soul searching over what to do about this evidence of extensive wrongdoing.

A democracy is only as strong as the elections that set its course. If they can be bought or subverted, then confidence in democracy and the legitimacy of the governments it installs, seeps away.

But astonishingly, the details that have been gradually revealed, of illegal activity by both the official Vote Leave and the unofficial Leave.EU campaigns in the run-up to the Brexit vote, appear to have no immediate consequences.

Most British elections are guaranteed by law. If evidence of serious cheating is uncovered they can be scrutinised and overturned in an “election court”, overseen by high court judges.

However, because the Brexit referendum was only an advisory vote there are no legal channels to challenge the result. Only parliament can investigate the result, declare it void or demand a re-run.

Nor have the powerful politicians who fronted the flawed Vote Leave campaign faced direct censure, even as the country is rocked by the tumultuous fallout from a vote that is now known to be flawed.

The Electoral Commission’s report established that BeLeave was operating as an arm of Vote Leave, which had won official status and the taxpayer money that entailed, partly by recruiting Conservative party luminaries.

The environment secretary, Michael Gove, was co-chair and the former foreign minister Boris Johnson was a figurehead for the campaign. But the report names only Darren Grimes, an inexperienced student at the time of the poll, and the previously obscure Vote Leave official David Halsall.

Both Gove and Johnson had once been quick to dismiss critics of the Vote Leave campaign. In March Johnson described the Observer’s report on the campaign group’s coordination with BeLeave as “ludicrous” and said Vote Leave won “fair and square”.

Observer/C4 story utterly ludicrous, #VoteLeave won fair & square - and legally. We are leaving the EU in a year and going global #TakeBackControl #GlobalBritain

— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 24, 2018

Yet both men have been conspicuously silent since the Election Commission report was released – along with other senior government or Conservative figures who sat on the Vote Leave committee. These include Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith, the new Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, and the former international development secretary Priti Patel.

It is unclear whether the British media will try to hold Gove, Johnson and other senior Vote Leave figures to account over the cheating where the Electoral Commission was not able to do so. The record so far has not been encouraging.

Editors at the BBC must be questioning – or should now be questioning – why they gave the Vote Leave CEO, Matthew Elliott, virtually free rein to attack the watchdog and present his version of the report days before its official release. His account differed significantly from the published report.

Too often over the two years since the referendum any efforts to question or investigate the Brexit campaigns have been dismissed as undemocratic sabotage, the work of bitter losers.

In fact, exposing fraud is a profoundly democratic enterprise, an act of commitment to ensuring that votes are respected. And yet journalists, lawyers and researchers digging into these questions began with very little political support. The Electoral Commission’s findings on Vote Leave – after it was forced to reopen an investigation that previously cleared the campaign group – have been a vindication of their work.

Yet this was only one fight, over one aspect of a campaign still shadowed by other serious questions about the legality of campaigns and funding, and several ongoing investigations.

The original source of more than £400,000 donated to the Democratic Unionist party’s Brexit campaign remains obscure, and the government has fought efforts to uncover details about the cash, officially provided by a small thinktank.

The Electoral Commission has been looking into whether the Brexit donor Arron Banks’s Better for the Country was the “true source of donations” to the leave campaigns. The Sunday Times has also reported that the National Crime Agency has been investigating Banks’s alleged Russian links.

Separately, the Information Commissioner’s Office is conducting an inquiry into potential data sharing between groups, including Brexit campaigns. The Metropolitan police have an inquiry into Liz Bilney, the CEO of Leave.EU, after the Electoral Commission ruled that Banks’s campaign had exceeded its spending limits.

The Electoral Commission has also put out an urgent plea for stronger laws and greater resources to protect British democracy.

Only months before the UK is due to leave the EU, with huge political and economic upheaval, it is reasonable to expect that part of the response to this report must focus on whether the decision to do so was legitimate.

Yet, in some ways, to argue about whether illegal spending by Vote Leave, Leave.EU – or possibly others – was enough to swing this hard-fought referendum is to sidestep more profound concerns about the implications of those actions.

The people who masterminded the Vote Leave campaign currently face little more than a rap over the knuckles for cheating. But their actions have been described by Gavin Millar QC as being of a “scale and seriousness” not known in the modern era, and which has potentially reshaped Britain’s future.

The barrister and election expert Adam Wagner spelled it out: “What is the point of having strict rules over elections and referendums if there are no consequences for them being broken?”


Emma Graham-Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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