The Observer, The Guardian, Channel 4 News and Remain supporting MPs seem to believe that they have found a smoking gun that somehow invalidates the 2016 EU Referendum. Their claim is of collusion between the officially designated Vote Leave campaign and a then 23-year-old libertarian design student at Brighton called Darren Grimes, who ran a pro-Brexit campaign aimed at millennials, BeLeave.
The undisputed facts are as follows. Vote Leave had raised more money than the £7 million they were allowed to spend during the official campaign lasting from April 15 to the referendum itself on June 23. As a result, Vote Leave decided to make a series of donations to other registered leave campaigners who were each permitted to spend up to £700,000 during the campaign – and they confirmed the legitimacy of making such donations with the Electoral Commission. These donations were £100,000 to Veterans for Britain and £15,000 to Labour Leave during May and, much closer to the vote, £10,000 to Muslims for GB on June 20 and a series of donations totalling £625,315 to Grimes’s BeLeave between June 13 and 21.
The donations to Grimes were not approved by the Vote Leave board as a whole, but by a small subcommittee of it. They were initially wrongly declared as a cash donation but the record was subsequently corrected to show a series of non-cash donations – namely payments made directly by Vote Leave on behalf of Grimes to Aggregate IQ, a previously obscure Canadian-based digital advertising company who did the social media advertising campaigns for both Vote Leave and Grimes.
Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr and her whistle-blower Shahmir Sanni claim that the donations were simply a ruse to get around the spending limits and that in the case of Grimes and his BeLeave campaign the spending was still directed by those running Vote Leave, namely Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott and Stephen Parkinson, who is now Political Secretary to Theresa May. Such collusion would be a clear breach of Electoral Commission rules. Vote Leave and its staff strongly deny there was any collusion and there is no clear evidence of it – although, of course, they seem to have done everything possible to arouse suspicion.
That Grimes chose to use the same obscure digital advertising company as Vote Leave, that the donations were made so late in the day, that he was based in the Vote Leave offices for most of the time and that Vote Leave initially misdeclared the donations does nothing to allay suspicions. On top of that, Grimes messed up his registration with Electoral Commission, so instead of his BeLeave campaign he made himself the referendum participant.
Those who think they have found a smoking gun like to portray Vote Leave as genius manipulators of public opinion. The facts make them look rather more like a bunch of out-of-their-depth bodgers.
But as a thought experiment, let us presume that everything that the Guardian and Channel 4 have claimed is true: did it make any difference to the campaign or make the result in any way illegitimate? The legal answer is clear – unlike in parliamentary or local elections, overspending does not invalidate a referendum result under any circumstances. The courts cannot order a rerun. If the claims were to be proved Vote Leave could be fined – though since the organisation is not engaged in anything post-Referendum this does not have much consequence – and there could be personal legal consequences for those involved, but nothing else.
More importantly, the European referendum was not a case of one squeaky clean side against another up to all kinds of tricks.
The government produced a 16-page leaflet, “Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK”, which was delivered to 27 million households in April (and in Scotland and Wales in May) 2016 at a cost to the public purse of £9.3 million, which did not count towards referendum expenditure.
A study by Harry Pickard of Sheffield University has shown that the government’s 2016 leaflet did have a major impact on the referendum vote – those who read the leaflet were, the study shows, 3 per cent less likely to vote leave than those who had not. Among Conservative voters, exposure to the leaflet reduced the likelihood of voting leave by over 6 per cent. The government’s leaflet – and indeed the other public resources employed on behalf of a Remain vote – created a far from even playing field. Its impact was clearly very much greater than whatever BeLeave may have achieved.
There is also good reason to suspect collusion between the various Remain campaign: Sir Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s then Director of Communications, records in his book Unleashing Demons that there was a daily morning conference call between the different organisations campaigning for Remain.
What is certain is that many pro-Remain campaigns relied on one donor – former Labour science minister and supermarket heir Lord (David) Sainsbury. Not only did Sainsbury donate over £2.6 million to the official Remain campaign, he donated over £2 million pounds each to the Remain campaigns of both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Political parties had their own spending limits depending on the vote they achieved in the previous election – though it is itself a rather unusual move to make donations to two separate parties in one campaign. He also donated to other pro-Remain participants including the European Movement, Scientists for the EU, We are Europe, Better for Our Future, DDB UK Ltd and Michelle Ovens Ltd. Perhaps the oddest donation from Sainsbury was £210,000 to Virgin Media Ltd, which helped to pay for newspaper ads featuring a letter from Virgin supremo Sir Richard Branson calling for a Remain vote. There is no evidence that there was collusion between the different campaigns backed by Sainsbury – but it is clear that both sides of the referendum were looking for ways to spend as much on their cause without breaching the spending limits.
Even if all that is alleged against Vote Leave is true, it is clear that this did not create an unfair playing field. Both sides in the Referendum exploited loopholes to maximise how much they could spend. The Remain side had the advantage of having the government machine – and £9.3 million of public funds on clear campaign literature – on its side. If the referendum was unbalanced, the advantage was with Remain – and yet it still lost.