Back in November 2017, the Electoral Commission reopened investigations into allegations that Vote Leave, the official exit campaign in the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union, had breached spending rules. Into 2018 this was a story that had rather bubbled under the surface. However, a slow drip of revelations regarding the work of Cambridge Analytica, unearthed by The Guardian, The Observer and Channel 4 News have brought the issue to the front and centre. It is worth reminding ourselves how the case got here, and what it means for the electoral integrity of the UK. During referendums in the UK, there are strict spending rules which designate the amount of money official, or “designated”, campaigns are allowed to spend. In 2016, Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe had a limit of £7m.
The £7m spending limit, however, only related to spending by the official campaign for each side – Remain and Leave. The 2000 Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) also allowed for any number of third party organisations to campaign to either remain, or leave, the EU. On the Leave side, these “registered campaigners” included the groups BeLeave and Veterans for Britain.
The recent allegation laid at the door of Vote Leave is that it colluded with BeLeave – although the commission is also investigating a potential collusion with Veterans for Britain. The commission’s investigation will look at whether the official campaign effectively funnelled money to these other groups, telling them how to spend it (very much against the rules), to circumvent the strict £7m limit. Senior figures from within Vote Leave, including the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, have denied any wrongdoing and said Vote Leave acted within the rules.