Police must investigate claims Vote Leave 'cheated' Brexit campaign spending rules, Labour and Lib Dems say

Boris Johnson insists claims are 'ludicrous', saying: 'Vote Leave won fair and square – and legally'

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Monday 26 March 2018 16:25
Vote Leave campaign group 'cheated' to bend referendum spending rules, whistleblower Shahmir Sanni claims

Police must investigate claims that Vote Leave “cheated” during the European Union referendum campaign, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said.

It comes after senior cabinet ministers involved in the officially designated Brexit campaign reacted furiously to claims related to Vote Leave’s links to another campaign – BeLeave – which it helped fund.

According to former BeLeave volunteer and whistleblower Shahmir Sanni, Vote Leave used the organisation to get around strict spending limits set by the Electoral Commission.

“I know that Vote Leave cheated,” he told Channel 4 News. “ I know that people have been lied to and that the referendum wasn’t legitimate.”

Vote Leave has strongly denied wrongdoing and said the £625,000 donated to BeLeave in the final days of the 2016 campaign was within the rules.

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit spokesperson, said the allegations were “stunning”, adding: “The British people expect fair play and campaigns to abide by the rules – they must not be cheated. These allegations must be examined by the police. If they represent what happened it is outrageous and shameful.

“The referendum had a very narrow outcome. One of the biggest exercises in democracy must not turn out to be one of Britain’s biggest electoral frauds.”

And appearing on the BBC Andrew Marr Show, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said the Prime Minister needed to ensure the Electoral Commission had the resources to fully investigate the allegations made.

He added: “ I think we need to make sure that they were not aware of what was going on and that’s why I think the resources are needed and if needs be the police should be resourced to investigate as well.”

But Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, who was a leading figure in Vote Leave, posted on social media: “Vote Leave won fair and square – and legally. We are leaving the EU in a year and going global.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove – who was campaign co-chairman of Vote Leave – added: “I respect the motives and understand the feelings of those who voted to remain in the EU. But 17.4 million opted to leave in a free and fair vote and the result must be respected. It’s our job now to work to overcome division.”

The Brexit Secretary Davis Davis said on the BBC Andrew Marr Show: “The individuals concerned have denied it, it’s really a matter – if there’s any truth to it at all – for the Electoral Commission to investigate. But that’s for them to decide, not for a minister to say.“

The claims come as Mr Sanni also said that Stephen Parkinson, his former boyfriend and political secretary to Theresa May, had publicly “outed” him as gay in the run-up to the Channel 4 and Observer disclosures over electoral spending. Mr Parkinson, who at the time was a senior Vote Leave figure, disclosed on Friday that he had been in an 18-month personal relationship with fellow Brexit campaigner Mr Sanni.

Mr Sanni went to the Electoral Commission with two other pro-Brexit friends on Thursday, who said they helped the Vote Leave campaign two years ago, Channel 4 reported.

Their lawyers have given the election watchdog signed statements.

Mr Sanni told the broadcaster he was initially a Vote Leave outreach volunteer but he was then assigned to BeLeave. Vote Leave said it did not recall Mr Sanni working as a volunteer, but he was “like hundreds of others who occasionally visited the offices”.

Mr Sanni said that he and BeLeave’s co-founder Darren Grimes always reported to Mr Parkinson.

“There was no time where anything BeLeave did didn’t go through Stephen,” he said.

In the final 10 days of the 2016 referendum campaign Vote Leave donated £625,000 to Mr Grimes, who was registered as a permitted participant, with the money used to pay Canadian data firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ), the programme said.

Asked whether they could have refused to spend the money on AIQ, Mr Sanni said: “We didn’t ever feel like we had that level of control.

“That’s what I mean, we never felt like we had control over the organisation itself.”

Mr Parkinson said he was “saddened” by the “factually incorrect and misleading” statements by Mr Sanni and his lawyers.

He added: “At the relevant time during the referendum period, the commission advised Vote Leave that it was permissible to make a donation in the way it proposed to do to BeLeave.

“Twice since the referendum the commission has investigated this matter, and twice it has found no evidence of wrongdoing. A third investigation into the same issue is currently taking place.

“The Electoral Commission has not contacted me in relation to any of these inquiries, but I will of course be happy to assist in them if they wish me to do so.

“I firmly deny the allegations in the programme. I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations on the Vote Leave campaign, and am confident that I stayed within the law and strict spending rules at all times.”

Mr Grimes also denies all the allegations, Channel 4 said.

A Vote Leave spokesman said it had “twice been cleared on this matter by the Electoral Commission” adding: “There are now a number of new accusations and allegations.

“While many of them seem irrelevant or trivial, some are serious and potentially damaging to the reputations of those caught up in those allegations. As has been the case throughout, Vote Leave is obligated to review – to the extent it can after this long elapsed period since the referendum – all such allegations, and is doing so.

“We will as appropriate share any relevant findings with the Electoral Commission, again as we have always done.”

An Electoral Commission spokeswoman said: “The commission has a number of investigations open in relation to campaigners at the EU referendum; it does not comment on live investigations.”

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