As Vote Leave are found guilty of campaign overspending, whistleblower CHRISTOPHER WYLIE on why the UK still seems unconcerned by allegations of referendum wrongdoing
‘In elections, as in sport, those who win by cheating have not properly won and are disqualified. Nor is it of any avail for the candidate to say ‘I would have won anyway’ because cheating leads to disqualification whether it was necessary for the victory or not.’
– Justice Mawrey outlining British electoral law in Erlam v Rahman.
In my testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee in May, I was asked a myriad of questions by senators about the conduct of Vote Leave, amid claims that it may have used illegal financing and data schemes to gain an unfair competitive advantage during the referendum. Earlier this month I was back in Washington for closed interviews with American authorities and congressional investigations. Of particular interest was whether crimes were committed during the campaign by Cambridge Analytica’s network of affiliates, such as AggregateIQ (AIQ). There were also questions about Leave.EU’s dealings with the Russian ambassador.
Let’s briefly go through some of the allegations. Vote Leave and other pro-Brexit campaign groups BeLeave, the DUP and Veterans for Britain all allegedly used AIQ, a data firm set up at Cambridge Analytica to build the ‘Ripon’ platform that used misappropriated Facebook data. In fact, 40% of Vote Leave’s entire budget went to AIQ.
These four Leave campaigns all simultaneously chose to use AIQ in the last weeks of the campaign, with a sudden surge of funding.
We know that Vote Leave’s single largest donation went to BeLeave. It is also alleged that BeLeave was set up inside Vote Leave with help of Vote Leave’s own lawyers, despite declaring to the Electoral Commission that it was separate. This looks like a scheme to avoid spending limits by pooling money into a foreign company, using Potemkin campaigns, or an elaborate ruse that looks like one thing but is actually another.
The Electoral Commission has been investigating the matter and its draft report concludes Vote Leave was guilty of four charges of breaking electoral law, although the group is rebutting the findings. Leave.EU, the other main pro-Brexit campaign group, has already been found to have broken electoral rules and has been fined £70,000, with its chief executive referred to the police by the Commission.
Americans seem to understand key facts about what happened during the referendum better than most Brits I’ve encountered on my journey as a whistleblower. To the Americans, a discernible pattern of behaviour occurred during Brexit. Foreign contractors outside the jurisdiction of domestic authorities were used to manage major aspects of the campaign.
It has been widely claimed that financing schemes were set up between shell entities, again with money being transferred offshore beyond the reach of the authorities. Large datasets with unexplained origins were deployed. Leading figures from both sides of the Atlantic were in touch with Wikileaks at the Ecuadorian embassy and contact with Russian figures proliferated both the Brexit and Trump campaigns.
The Americans want to understand what happened in the UK because similar operations appear to have occurred in their own elections.
Last month, I even appeared before the Canadian Parliament for a three-hour testimony on Brexit – yes, there is a full inquiry into possible crimes committed during Brexit led by Canadian MPs. In fact, Canada has already released a preliminary report that references potential illegal activity in Vote Leave. The CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, has already done its own exposé on the referendum.
It seems everywhere except in Britain attention is being paid to the investigation into whether the Leave campaigns relied on criminal operations as part of their strategy. I am continuously astounded and disappointed that so little attention is paid by those in the pro-Remain movement to the potential law-breaking that occurred during the fated 2016 referendum.
Remain campaigners seem to care more about re-hashing the old Stronger IN arguments than engaging with the elephant in the room. Despite the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post and CNN all extensively reporting possible cheating in the referendum, our national public broadcaster the BBC continuously avoids the issue.
Cheating is the antithesis of British values. This is a country that prides itself on queueing, fair play and following the rules. I migrated to Britain because I admire and respect its values. It is my adopted home and I cherish the privilege of living here and will eagerly fight for what makes this country so great.
That starts with upholding British law. Together with two other whistleblowers, I reported Vote Leave to the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and Metropolitan Police for breaches of electoral and data protection law. I reported Leave.EU’s dealings with the Russian embassy to the National Crime Agency and intelligence services. These actions, I thought, were what any reasonable person would do in the same situation.
But when reasonable questions are asked, those implicated either gaslight or explode into vitriolic attacks – and Remainers stay silent. As if out of some political affair from the 1950s, No.10 publicly outed Shahmir Sanni, one of the Vote Leave whistleblowers, in an official press release. I have received grotesque homophobic abuse and have been physically assaulted in the street. Leave.EU distributed videos of a woman superimposed with Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s face being tied to a chair and beaten up to the tune of the Russian national anthem.
Normally crime scenes are dealt with by the police and courts. But in the case of Brexit, there is very little we can do in the courts. Were this a typical parliamentary election, a hearing in the election court could be called. Under these sets of facts, it is likely that a British judge would call for a by-election. But these are not normal times and the slapdash legislation that created the referendum did not consider a situation where the result could be tainted by cheating. The election court would not have authority to call a by-election in the case of widespread cheating in the 2016 referendum.
Unfortunately, the only way to resolve this is in parliament. Yet this relies on a government where the investigations could yet involve special advisers and cabinet ministers.
When Leave apologists say this should be left as a matter for the authorities, they know this creates a situation where Vote Leave could be found guilty of criminal offences, but the fruit of that criminal enterprise – Brexit – would nonetheless remain intact. In other words, the most fundamental change to the British constitutional settlement in a generation would be a product of electoral fraud.
So much for the rule of law. If there are no consequences, why would any future campaign bother following the law?
For those who argue that Leave would have won anyway, or that cheating did not affect votes, this misses the point of having electoral laws in the first place. As Justice Mawrey explained in the case Erlam v Rahman: ‘In elections, as in sport, those who win by cheating have not properly won and are disqualified. Nor is it of any avail for the candidate to say ‘I would have won anyway’ because cheating leads to disqualification whether it was necessary for the victory or not.’
Cheating is banned in elections because it creates undue influence on the electorate. More resources mean a disproportionate number of voters can be immersed in one campaign’s messaging.
If the same occurred in Kenya or Nigeria, British electoral observers would demand a new vote free of cheating. We should apply the same standards here at home. It is uncomfortable to imagine that British democracy is vulnerable, but elections here are not insulated from electoral fraud and foreign manipulation. We are now in the surreal position of both major parties continuing to claim that the referendum represents the ‘Will of the British People’.
That is simply untrue. Yet, Remainers stay silent. This silence is not just a failure in political strategy for those wishing to remain in the EU, it is a failure to fight for the legal underpinnings of our democracy.
The findings so far suggest that Brexit is the fruit of a poisoned tree.
We cannot let its poisoned fruit corrupt the most fundamental laws of this country. The referendum was one of the largest institutional failures in modern British history, and it is only being made worse by the silence of pro-EU campaigns who seem to care more about remoaning than the assault being committed against the rule of law.