On the day we were due to leave the European Union, 29 March 2019, Vote Leave (VL) quietly withdrew their appeal against the case brought against them by the Electoral Commission claiming they broke UK electoral laws for overspending and failing to produce accurate accounts of their campaign costs.

The allegations against Vote Leave, who won the rights to be the official leave campaigners for the 2016 EU referendum, caused the Electoral Commission to open investigations into the campaign in November 2017 following evidence indicating payments made by Vote Leave to Aggregate IQ just 10 days before the 2016 referendum.

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This, alongside other evidence, caused the Commission to investigate whether VL had worked under a common plan with other campaign groups to manipulate their permitted spending allowances and break UK laws regarding how campaigns may conduct themselves to ensure elections and referendums are undertaken fairly and appropriately.

Although VL have withdrawn their appeal against the findings that they did indeed act illegally, they insist this isn’t an admission of guilt but that their party simply “do not have the financial resources to carry forward this appeal, even though we are confident that we would have prevailed on the facts in court.”

In a statement released by the Electoral Commission on 29 March, they declared Vote Leave “broke the electoral rules set out by parliament to ensure fairness, confidence and legitimacy at an electoral event,” as such, they have been fined £61,000, which they have agreed to pay, and the case will be referred to the police for further investigations.

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The case against Vote Leave

The evidence used in the Electoral Commission’s investigation found VL donated over £675,000 to smaller campaign group BeLeave, which was run by then-22-year-old Darren Grimes.

This money was spent hiring social media marketing firm, Aggregate IQ, who run highly targeted Facebook adverts.

This marketing firm was highly scrutinised in the Channel 4 drama, Brexit: An Uncivil War, whilst the VL campaign director, Dominic Cummings, has been quoted giving a lot of credit to Aggregate IQ for their victory, stating “we couldn’t have done it without them,” on a quote which has now been removed from the Aggregate IQ website.

According to UK electoral law, official campaigns are permitted a £7 million spending limit. This donation to BeLeave would bring VL almost £500,000 over this spending limit.

Further to this, BeLeave, as a non-registered campaigner, had an imposed budget of £10,000 which they were permitted to spend on their campaign. The money spent by Mr Grimes on behalf of the BeLeave campaign was recorded at £675,000, which is massively over the allocated budget and as such Mr Grimes has been fined £20,000 (the maximum fine permitted).

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Misleading Reports

Further to this, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) states it is the responsibility of all campaigners to ensure accurate and complete spending returns for the campaigns are completed and submitted to the Electoral Commission by the statutory deadline.

Investigations showed Vote Leave returned an incomplete spending report with just under £234,501 of spending incorrectly reported and £12,849.99 worth of missing invoices.

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With regards to BeLeave, it was found Mr Grimes wrongly reported the overspending of the campaign as his own in an attempt to trick the spending limits imposed on the non-registered campaign.

Common Plan

Although campaigns are able to work together towards a common goal under UK electoral laws, there are limits on spending money on campaign activities and rules about how this spending must be reported.

If two or more campaigns are working together under a common plan, this must be reported as a joint campaign and remain within their allocated spending limits. Where there is a ‘lead campaigner’, all spending through the joint campaign must be recorded through this entity.

In the case of Vote Leave, it was found £675,000 was filtered through pro-Brexit youth group BeLeave, who were a non-registered campaign with a spending limit of £10,000, and through Veterans for Britain. This money was spent on marketing firm Aggregate IQ who were quoted as being instrumental to the overall Leave result in the 2016 referendum.

It was found that the reporting of monetary donations received by BeLeave and Veterans for Britain were inaccurately reported by the smaller campaigns.

Although there was no evidence of joint working between Vote Leave and Veterans for Britain, they were fined for inaccurately reporting the donation they received from the official leave campaigners.

Results

Although Vote Leave claimed their spending towards BeLeave was authorised by the Electoral Commission and that the allegations were “politically motivated”, their lack of cooperation in the investigation and evidence supporting the claims allowed the investigation to continue.

Speaking about the case brought against VL, a spokesman in July 2018 claimed the report “contains a number of false accusations [that]… do not stand up to scrutiny,” he further stated “it is astonishing that nobody from Vote Leave has been interviewed…”

In their findings however, the Electoral Commission stated “The individuals and the campaign groups investigated by us were all invited to be interviewed and to provide us with evidence. Vote Leave declined to be interviewed.”

Their results showed evidence received from a variety of individuals and sources, including VL and Mr Grimes, clearly showing a breach of electoral law due to spending which should have been declared, plus false declarations of campaign spending undertaken by both VL and Mr Grimes.

Fines

As a result of these findings, Vote Leave have been fined £61,000, Mr Grimes has been fined £20,000 on behalf of BeLeave, and Veterans for Britain received a fine of £250 for false spending reporting.

Although Vote Leave officials have decided to withdraw their appeal of this decision, Mr Grimes has taken to Twitter to declare his intention to fight the findings against him “until my last f***ing penny.”

The Electoral Commission went further, highlighting the fine against Mr Grimes was restricted by a maximum individual fine limit of £20,000 which they consider “inadequate for serious offences of electoral or referendum law.”

Since the findings were announced, the Electoral Commission have referred Mr David Halsall (the person responsible for Vote Leave) and Mr Grimes to the Metropolitan Police for further investigation into their declarations of campaign spending.

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