Brexit result has been thrown into question by the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, says Tory MP

Exclusive: ‘We don’t know what use was made of that data – or whether the misuse of that data did affect the result’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 02 May 2018 19:45 BST
Can Brexit be reversed?

A Conservative MP has for the first time claimed that the result of the Brexit vote has been thrown into question by the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, increasing pressure for a fresh public vote on the exit deal.

The allegations that the Leave campaign cheated spending limits, and that personal data was misused to illegally target voters, raise “very serious questions” about the fairness of the campaign, Antoinette Sandbach told The Independent.

“We have this British sense of fair play and there is a feeling, a groundswell of unease, that the referendum campaign was not done in a British way,” the MP for Eddisbury in Cheshire said.

Ms Sandbach is the first Tory MP to publicly join growing warnings that the data scandal may have tainted the Brexit vote – although others have done so privately, The Independent has learned.

She stressed she was not calling for a further referendum on Theresa May’s withdrawal deal, or suggesting that the 2016 vote that triggered Brexit should be re-run.

But Ms Sandbach said: “There is a real worry among my constituents who are writing to me that maybe the misuse of data did affect the result.

“I’m waiting to see what the information commissioner says about the investigation they are conducting into the way that data was used, but this does raise very serious questions.

“We don’t know what use was made of that data – or whether the misuse of that data did affect the result.

“I don’t think the referendum should be run again, but it does potentially raise the case for having a vote on the final deal, when we know what that deal is.”

Many believe the Cambridge Analytica affair is too complex to “cut through” to voters, but Ms Sandbach revealed: “It has been the single biggest issue that people have written to me about over the last two weeks.”

The controversy blew up when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica paid a researcher to harvest the Facebook data of millions of US voters’ using a personality quiz app, to target them with political advertising.

The British data-mining firm also made presentations for the Nigel Farage-led Leave.EU campaign, which “benefited from” that work, according to the head of a Commons committee investigating the scandal.

A former Cambridge Analytica employee told its inquiry that the misuse of personal data was “rife”, alleging Leave.EU may have used data from businesses run by its funder Arron Banks to target potential Brexit supporters.

There is also evidence that personal information gathered from price comparison websites and held by Eldon Insurance – owned by Mr Banks – may also have been used without people's knowledge or consent.

Damian Collins, the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said its inquiry wanted to establish if Leave.EU had used data profiling to copy the Nazi tactic of “creating bogeymen for people to be frightened of”.

Meanwhile, the official Vote Leave campaign is alleged to have exceeded the campaign spending limit, potentially allowing it to precisely target enough voters to have swayed the Brexit result.

Its data firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ) had a conversion rate of between 5 per cent and 7 per cent – and targeted five to seven million people for the referendum, the whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed.

Mr Wylie described the group BeLeave, which received a £680,000 donation from Vote Leave, as effectively a money-laundering vehicle to breach the £7m campaign spending limit.

And crucially, he said it was “weasel words” to claim AIQ was a separate entity to Cambridge Analytica, because it had been set up and worked within its auspices.

All parties have vehemently denied any wrongdoing. Cambridge Analytica insisted the Facebook data it received was obtained legally and that it was not used in the Brexit referendum.

Mr Banks and Eldon Insurance have denied that the company shared any data with either Leave.EU or with Cambridge Analytica – and insisted the data consultancy did no work for its campaign.

AIQ, meanwhile, says it has never been a part of either Cambridge Analytica or SCL, its parent firm, nor entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica.

However, the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is investigating both Leave.EU and Mr Banks over possible breaches of the Data Protection Act, issuing “information notices” requiring specified cooperation.

Her office also raided Cambridge Analytica’s offices, as part of Operation Cederburg – the commissioner’s year-long investigation into the use of data in the EU referendum.

A few days ago, Ms Denham publicly accused AIQ of failing to co-operate with her inquiry, saying: “We are considering the legal steps available to obtain the information.”

Of the 87 million Facebook users whose personal data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, more than one million live in the UK, the company has acknowledged.

“One million people was the margin of the win in the Brexit referendum,” Ms Sandbach pointed out.

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