Seven years ago, during a night of rioting in London, a 23-year-old student popped into his local Lidl and carried out the “opportunistic” theft of a £3.50 case of bottled water. He was sentenced to six months in jail. There was an outcry, but he still went to jail. The law was the law. And justice – though punitive and disproportionate – was served. But that was petty crime. What if the crime is bigger? Much bigger. Too big, possibly, to reckon with. Because last week we discovered other laws may have been broken. Not crimes against a person, or a property, but against our democracy. Crimes that may have been committed by the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum. On Wednesday, Matthew Elliott, the CEO of Vote Leave, the campaign headed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, both now government ministers, took the extraordinary step of leaking the interim report of an Electoral Commission investigation which is still under way.
This found the campaign guilty of breaking electoral rules and law. Laws which are the bedrock of our entire electoral system.
The timing of the release of this – after midnight, on the night of a World Cup match – an apparent attempt to influence the reporting of an investigation that hasn’t yet concluded raises many questions.
But what Elliott couldn’t spin was this: according to his own account of the report, Vote Leave, the official referendum campaign that was partly funded with taxpayers’ money, looks to have committed what may be one of the biggest incidents of electoral fraud in Britain in more than a century. Back in March, when the Observer reported on compelling new evidence provided by Shahmir Sanni, a Vote Leave whistleblower, Gavin Millar, a QC at Matrix Chambers, an expert in electoral law, told us that this was of a scale and seriousness that simply hasn’t been seen in Britain in modern times.