Brexit campaign violations spur new demands for another vote
LONDON — Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign in the UK referendum on European Union membership, was fined for breaking electoral laws — a verdict that added fuel to calls for a second ballot.
Vote Leave breached spending limits and violated rules on working jointly with other groups during the 2016 campaign, the Electoral Commission said, adding that the case has been referred to the Metropolitan Police.
Opposition Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna was granted an urgent question in Parliament on Tuesday to ask the government to make a statement on the matter.
“Vote Leave’s actions are an affront to our democracy and that fundamental British value of fair play,” Umunna, who supported staying in the EU, said in the House of Commons. “We cannot say with confidence that this foul play did not impact on the result” of the vote, he said.
Vote Leave denies any wrongdoing.
The verdict comes ads a growing number of lawmakers openly discuss the need for a second referendum on Brexit to end the quagmire in Parliament, where Prime Minister Theresa May is caught between various factions in her Conservative Party trying to shape Britain’s departure agreement with the EU. A former education secretary, Justine Greening, made the case over the weekend for a second vote, the most senior Tory yet to do so.
“The prime minister is absolutely clear that this was the largest democratic event in our country,” May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters Tuesday. “This was a legitimate democratic exercise in which the public delivered its verdict, and we are getting on with implementing it.”
Answering Umunna’s question, Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith told lawmakers the government “takes these matters extremely seriously,” but also said “it would not be appropriate for the government to comment on ongoing police investigations.”
Tom Brake, Brexit spokesman for the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, said the findings “strengthen the need for a vote on the deal and an opportunity for the country to escape this mess.” Labour lawmaker David Lammy called for the referendum result to be declared void — but was rebuffed by Smith.
Even lawmakers in May’s ruling Conservative Party expressed concern. A former home secretary, Amber Rudd, urged the government not to allow its commitment to deliver on the referendum result “to obfuscate from the real questions that are being raised.”
Nicholas Soames, a senior Tory lawmaker and grandson of Winston Churchill, appeared to back a second referendum.
“One of the great glories of this sadly now diminished country was our electoral and democratic system,” he said. “And this example today is gross. If we are to retain the integrity and the trust of the voting public, the whole damn thing needs to be blown up and started all over again.”
Soames later retweeted a post by fellow Tory Anna Soubry, which said he had “just called for the #EU #Referendum to be re-run.”
Any evidence that undermines the credibility of the result plays straight into the argument for another referendum. Lawmakers in the past have also called for a probe into whether Russian “dark money” played a role in the vote, and some returned to that theme Tuesday.
May regularly accuses Russia of meddling in foreign elections, without explicitly mentioning the 2016 plebiscite.
“There are not only concerns about the overspend, there are concerns about the source of the money,” Soubry told lawmakers. “The evidence is mounting, it is clearly there, that another country — let’s be honest, Russia — exercised its influence to undermine this country’s democracy and indeed this country’s security.”
Vote Leave worked under a “common plan” with BeLeave, another campaign group, spending more than 675,000 pounds ($895,000) on work from data firm Aggregate IQ, the Electoral Commission said. That helped push Vote Leave over the 7 million-pound spending cap for the vote, and breached rules banning joint work. BeLeave also denies wrongdoing.
“These are serious breaches of the laws put in place by Parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums,” the commission’s legal counsel, Bob Posner, said in the statement.
Posner said Vote Leave resisted the probe “from the start” and refused to cooperate. Vote Leave was fined 61,000 pounds, while Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave, was fined 20,000 pounds. A third group, Veterans for Britain, was fined 250 pounds. Grimes and David Halsall of Vote Leave were referred to the police in relation to false declarations of campaign spending.
Vote Leave said in an e-mailed statement the commission’s report contains “a number of false accusations and incorrect assertions.” Grimes said in a statement on Twitter that he had done “nothing wrong.” Vote Leave said it will “consider the options available to us.”