Leave campaign broke law in Brexit vote, UK elections regulator finds

The pro-Brexit campaign group Vote Leave broke election law. [Hannah McKay/EPA]

The Vote Leave campaign has been fined and reported to the police by the UK’s elections regulator for breaking laws on campaign expenses during the Brexit referendum campaign.

In a report published on Tuesday (17 July), the Electoral Commission stated that Vote Leave and two other campaign groups were guilty of a series of breaches of election law

The referendum, in which UK citizens voted to leave the European Union by a narrow 52-48% margin, was marked by one of the ugliest political campaigns in recent memory.

The investigation was prompted after a series of whistleblowers claimed that Vote Leave had used proxy organisations to redirect campaign funds.

In particular, allegations focused on donations totaling over £675,000 which were passed on by the Vote Leave campaign to a separate youth Brexit group called BeLeave, led by fashion student Darren Grimes, then 22 years old.

The commission stated that it was “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that all Mr Grimes’ and BeLeave’s spending on referendum campaigning was incurred under a common plan with Vote Leave.”

Grimes has been fined £20,000, while Vote Leave has been fined a total of £61,000. Fellow campaign group, Veterans for Britain, but escaped with a £250 fine. The cases have also been passed onto the police and could lead to prosecutions.

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After launching the investigation in November 2017, the Electoral Commission focused on five payments made to Canada-based data analytics firm Aggregate IQ, a subsidiary of the disgraced Cambridge Analytica, for social media advertisements in the final weeks of the campaign.

It concluded that by falsely routing money via BeLeave, Vote Leave had managed to avoid exceeding its £7 million spending limit.

In its report, the Commission stated that Vote Leave’s principals had repeatedly refused requests to meet with them, ignored deadlines to submit documents and submitted the wrong documents.

“It is a matter of fact that Vote Leave did not comply with our investigation notice,” it adds.

Vote Leave has denied any wrong doing throughout the process and claims that the Electoral Commission refused to meet its officials during the investigation.

Its lawyers threatened to open judicial review of the investigation in January, although this was never followed up. Brexiteers argue that the pro-Remain ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ campaign also used proxy groups to get around spending limits.

Fronted by Boris Johnson, who resigned as Foreign Secretary last week, and cabinet minister Michael Gove, and led by Conservative operatives Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave was the officially designated campaign for the ‘Leave’ team.

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Elliott and Grimes are now the editor-at-large and deputy editor, respectively, of the Brexit Central website.

But the sanctions do not mean that the referendum will be nullified or rerun and, in a statement on Tuesday, government minister Chloe Smith told MPs that the referendum result would be carried out, but opened the prospect of campaign spending rules being tightened.

A number of Labour and Conservative MPs – all of whom supported the Remain campaign – have called for the poll to be rerun.

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