On Thursday morning, a long-awaited report from the Electoral Commission which Vote Leave have said is “wholly inaccurate”, found “significant evidence” of coordination with another campaign group, BeLeave.
The watchdog fined the campaign group, which was the officially designated campaign for leave for the EU referendum, £61,000 while Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave was fined £20,000. Grimes and David Halsall of Vote Leave have been referred to the police.
Vote Leave strongly deny the findings and have said they are exploring their options following the publication of the damning report.
But how did we get here?
In October 2015, the year the planned referendum was announced, Vote Leave was founded by political strategists Matthew Elliot and Dominic Cummings.
The following April, the cross-party campaign – fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – was designated by the Electoral Commission as the official campaign in favour of leaving the EU for the referendum.
We all know what happened on 24 June 2016.
In the months that followed the referendum result, Vote Leave and other Leave campaigns were heavily criticised for making misleading claims during the referendum, with a leading academic in European law calling it “one of the most dishonest political campaigns this country [the UK] has every seen”.
In August 2016, the Electoral Reform Society published a highly critical report on the referendum and called for a review of how such future events are run.
So how was electoral law reportedly broken?
Darren Grimes, who at the time was a 23-year-old student, was the founder of BeLeave, a youth campaign group.
Under British electoral law, the co-ordination between different campaign organisations is forbidden unless it complies with spending limits so if groups plan tactics or co-ordinate together, they must have a shared cap on spending.
In August 2016, it was revealed by Buzzfeed that Vote Leave had donated £625,000 to Grimes, which was an incredibly large amount of money given £700,000 is the limit that any registered individual was legally allowed to spend in the campaign.
The money was handed over just days before the referendum vote at a time when Vote Leave was said to be approaching the strict £7 million campaign spending limit.
The news website later found that money had also been given to Veterans for Britain. Curiously, both campaign groups spent the money on a little known Canadian data and social media start up AggregateIQ.
In quote published on AggregateIQ’s website, Cummings credited the company with the win, saying: “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
During its investigation into Cambridge Analytica, The Observer published claims by former Vote Leave volunteer Shahmir Sanni that the donation to BeLeave was not genuine as the two campaign groups shared an office and Vote Leave gave the youth campaigners advice, assistance and suggestions for how to spend cash.
Electoral commission investigates and reinvestigates
The Electoral Commission said in November 2016 that it had not found any evidence of the law being broken when it investigated Grimes following the original BuzzFeed News story.
At the time, a spokesperson said they had found “no evidence” that Grimes and Vote Leave had worked together in a way that broke the law.
The following year, The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr investigated links between Vote Leave, AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica in a series of articles.
In September 2017, the Commission’s decision was challenged when The Good Law Project, which is headed by Jolyon Maugham QC, wrote to the commission demanding that it reconsider. The network launched a crowdfunding appeal to fund the judicial review.
Two months later, in November 2017, the Commission agreed to reopen the investigation into Vote Leave’s EU referendum spending.
In report of the investigation, the watchdog explained the change of heart was due to media reports at the time suggesting that the campaigns had been working under a “common plan” and the fact they found out the Veterans For Britain had given the wrong details of the donation it received and the correct dates tallied with the dates Grimes had given.
The commission has been critical of Vote Leave’s refusal to cooperate. In the report, the watchdog said that interviews had been requested in November 2017, when Vote Leave indicated it would cooperate but the campaign then did not respond to a request to set interview dates in December and January 2018.
Vote Leave then sent legal letters to the Commission threatening to launch a judicial review into how the investigation was opened. Two further offers of interview dates were made to the campaign but said Vote Leave “began to repeat procedural questions we had already answered”.
The commission then issued Vote Leave with a formal investigation notice to provide certain documents but the group did not reply by the deadline or produce the documents but said they could be inspected at its lawyer’s office.
Vote Leave then made its offer of inspection of the documents contingent on a meeting to discuss why the investigation should be closed, which the commission said was not “appropriate or helpful”.
Finally, the documents made available were then found to be incorrect or incomplete.
The report notes that Grimes was interviewed on numerous occassions and provided documents for the investigation.
It also notes that three other individuals provided information including Sanni, Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower and Mark Gettleson, a former staffer for Vote Leave.
The watchdog said in the conclusions of its investigation that Vote Leave broke £7m legal spending limit by £500,000 and its spending return was inaccurate.
Crucially it found “significant evidence” of coordination with BeLeave and said Grimes and Vote Leave broke electoral law.
The report also states that it found no evidence that Veterans for Britain campaigned under a common plan with Vote Leave, and it has been fined just £250 for inaccurate reporting.
On the BBC Radio 4 Today Show, the Commission’s , with its chief executive Claire Bassett said the record fine reflected the campaign group’s failure to cooperate.
A Vote Leave spokesperson said the report contains “a number of false accusations and incorrect assertions that are wholly inaccurate and do not stand up to scrutiny”.
The spokesperson added that they are confident the results will be overturned, saying they were examining the options open to them.