Why is Britain turning blind eye to Leave side’s lawbreaking?

Illegal fund activity linked to Brexit being ignored in belief ‘the people have spoken’

Vote Leave badge: Almost every aspect of British public life is now refracted through the simplistic slogans of June 2016. Photograph:  John Linton/PA

Vote Leave badge: Almost every aspect of British public life is now refracted through the simplistic slogans of June 2016. Photograph: John Linton/PA

 

In early 2016, Darren Grimes, a 21-year-old fashion student from Durham, set up a social media campaign to encourage young people to vote to leave the European Union. “BeLeave” raised the princely sum of £21.51 in three months.

Then, in the two weeks before the Brexit referendum, Grimes received a series of massive donations, including £625,000 from the Vote Leave campaign. This money, it was subsequently discovered, was paid directly to a Canadian data analytics firm called Aggregate IQ. It was never even resting in the young student’s account.

On Tuesday, the UK’s elections watchdog reported Grimes and a senior Vote Leave executive to the police. In a stinging report, the Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave had broken the law by failing to include Grimes’s spending in their return.

The official Leave campaign breached spending limits by almost half a million pounds. That’s a significant amount in British politics, especially in a knife-edge referendum like Brexit.

Nor is this the first time that the British elections regulator has found serious irregularities in how the campaign to leave the EU was won.

In May, another pro-Brexit campaign, Leave.EU, was fined £70,000, again for breaking electoral law. Leave.EU was bankrolled by Arron Banks, a controversial businessman who emerged from obscurity to become the biggest donor in British political history, giving more than £8 million to pro-Brexit groups.

Russian ambassador

The extent and source of Banks’s fortune has been under discussion, as have his political connections. Recent reports revealed that Banks had extensive, previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador in London in the run-up to the Brexit vote.

Then, on the night of the referendum former Ukip leader Nigel Farage twice conceded defeat live on British television. When the results came in sterling’s value collapsed, and a number of prominent pro-Brexit hedge fund managers made millions.

Broadcasters are responding to an environment in which almost any information that might challenge the narrative of 'the people have spoken' is decried as politically motivated

So, what has been the response in Britain to all this? A parliamentary inquiry? Politicians on all sides demanding changes to electoral law to protect the democratic processes?

Not exactly. On Tuesday, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries accused the Electoral Commission – an independent regulator – of being biased.

Dorries, who infamously took a sabbatical in the I’m a Celebrity jungle, is often a fringe Tory voice but not this time. News that the largest Brexit campaign broke the law has provoked hardly a peep from the party of government.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson: The elections watchdog is expected to find that Brexit campaign Vote Leave broke spending rules during the 2016 referendum. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson: The elections watchdog is expected to find that Brexit campaign Vote Leave broke spending rules during the 2016 referendum. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The opposition benches have scarcely been much louder. With a few honourable exceptions, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has been largely silent, no doubt wary of being seen to oppose “the will of the people”.

To say that Brexit has paralysed British politics is hardly a searing insight. Hours before the Electoral Commission’s Vote Leave report was released, Theresa May was forced into an embarrassing climbdown in the Commons on key aspects of her Chequers plan.

At present, it’s hard to see who wield more power: the prime minister or the hardline European Research Group’s priggish leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Simplistic slogans

But it is not just Britain’s parliament that has been incapacitated by Brexit. Almost every aspect of British public life is now refracted through the simplistic slogans of June 2016.

Take the media. Ordinarily news that the largest campaign in British political history had broken the law would be met with headlines excoriating Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – both senior figures in Vote Leave – and calling for full investigations.

But these are not ordinary times. In a climate where some newspaper front pages have declared judges “the enemies of the people” and called on May to “crush the saboteurs”, there is a marked reluctance to pose awkward questions about how the referendum was won.

This tendency is particularly notable in the BBC. The corporation allowed Vote Leave’s former head honcho Matthew Elliott to issue a rebuttal of the Electoral Commission’s charges a full two weeks ago, well before the report had even been released.

Broadcasters are responding to a wider environment within which almost any information that might challenge the narrative of “the people have spoken” is decried as politically motivated. Northern Ireland-born Labour MP Kate Hoey dismissed the Electoral Commission report as the work of jaundiced Remainers. In the next breath, she said she had not actually read it.

Democratic poverty

Brexit has revealed the poverty of the system that regulates British democracy. The Electoral Commission itself only looked in depth at Vote Leave after internal emails released under Freedom of Information legislation showed that the watchdog was deeply uneasy about the campaign’s spending but was wary of launching a full investigation.

Some anti-Brexit campaigners hope the news will force the UK government to reassess the whole project. That’s highly unlikely

Even now that Vote Leave has been found to have broken the law, little is likely to change. The fines levied are tiny in comparison with the stakes involved: Vote Leave’s fine represents less than 1 per cent of the total spending.

There seems little chance of anyone ending up in prison or of meaningful reform of Britain’s election laws. Meanwhile, putatively Conservative voices such as Rees-Mogg routinely attack public institutions, from the courts to the election regulator.

Some anti-Brexit campaigners hope the news will force the UK government to reassess the whole project. That’s highly unlikely. Remarkably, unlike a general election, the victory in the referendum cannot be challenged in an election court because the vote was not legally binding.

Brexit means Brexit. But does Brexit mean ignoring mounting evidence that the democratic process was compromised during the 2016 referendum? If that’s the case, then Britain could be living with the consequences of the vote to leave the EU long, long after March 2019.

Peter Geoghegan is an investigative journalist with news website openDemocracy

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