The Electoral Commission’s findings against the Leave.EU campaign are damning.
In concluding that Leave.EU failed to reveal at least £77,380 of its spending, the commission makes clear that the figure could be “considerably higher”. The lack of transparency and the inaccurate reporting of transactions unearthed during the investigation evidently make it difficult to be certain. But in any event, the amount spent by Leave.EU on its Brexit campaign was at least 10 per cent higher than was permissible under the rules.
That the Electoral Commission has also referred Leave.EU’s chief executive, Liz Bilney, to the police over suspicions that she may have committed criminal offences further highlights the seriousness of the situation. Bilney says she will personally defend any charges that may in the future be brought against her – none have at present.
What’s more, the commission noted that the fine it has imposed on Leave.EU (£70,000) was “constrained by the cap on the commission’s fines”.
All of this will inevitably raise questions about the integrity of the referendum’s outcome. Indeed, we should remember too that the official Vote Leave campaign group is still under investigation, the Electoral Commission having reopened its enquiries last November after initially giving Vote Leave’s spending a clean bill of health.
Remainers will certainly use the development as further grist to the second referendum mill. And that is fair enough – one imagines Brexiteers would be arguing the same were the boot on the other foot. After all, elections and referendums ought not to be won and lost by virtue of who can spend the most money (though proving a correlation is probably impossible).
Mind you, let’s not forget either that the Lib Dems, the official Remain campaign now known as Open Britain, the pro-EU campaign group European Movement UK and Ukip have all already been fined – albeit less damningly – over failures related to the submission of referendum spending returns. It seems that not sticking to the rules and regulations is a widespread problem.
What marks out the commission’s findings in respect of Leave.EU is not just the suggestion that criminal offences may have been committed, but also the response that the findings have elicited.
Arron Banks, the ardent Brexiteer and millionaire businessman who co-founded Leave.EU, described the Electoral Commission’s “announcement” (not, you will note, “decision” or “findings”) as a “shambles” – a “politically motivated attack on Brexit and the 17.4 million people who defied the establishment to vote for an independent Britain”.
In an flourish worthy of that great European, Eric Cantona, he continued: “The Electoral Commission went big game fishing and found a few ‘aged’ dead sardines on the beach. So much for the big conspiracy!”
Banks has pointedly said that Leave.EU will challenge the commission’s findings in court, although it remains to be seen whether he will follow through on such a promise. There are plenty who would welcome the chance for some further legal scrutiny, not least Banks’s most vocal critics.
Still, the whole tenor of his remarks is a reminder of where we now stand in terms of our national discourse – and stands as a grim reminder too of the way that the referendum campaign itself played out two years ago.
In short, appeals to populism are now more dominant than appeals to reason or detailed explanations of policy proposals. Donald Trump has demonstrated this more completely than anyone else, having ridden to power to his promise to drain Washington’s establishment swamp.
Indeed it is notable that Banks has echoed Trump in his response to the Electoral Commission’s findings, claiming that the organisation is a “‘Blairite swamp creation’ packed full of establishment ‘remoaners’ who couldn’t quite make it to the House of Lords.”
The inferred dismissal here of the House of Lords hints too at the anger felt by many at recent defeats handed to the government by peers over the EU Withdrawal Bill. The Daily Mail has expressed particular vexation at the Lords’ role in supposedly undermining the “will of the people”.
But of course the nonsensical thing about these catch-all attacks on “the establishment” is that they are now made by shouty people from both ends of the political spectrum.
Those on the left will denounce an “establishment” which includes the Conservatives, public schools, probably Oxbridge, the BBC and the House of Lords and certainly the right-wing media. Noisy bods on the right will attack an “establishment” which includes judges, left-leaning media outlets, “liberals” and “Blairites” (other fairly ludicrous catch-alls), probably the BBC and the House of Lords, and some elements of the civil service.
The effect of all this is to enable both sides to disavow any responsibility for anything that might be faintly unpopular by blaming shadowing, opposition forces who allegedly are masterminding everything.
It is a shocking way to play politics. But of course in recent times it has been effective. Banks is trying it again in his attempt to call into question the Electoral Commission’s decision.
We must hope that his bombastic efforts do not prevent him and his campaign group being called properly to account.
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