On Tuesday evening, the nation held its collective breath as the English football team beat Colombia on penalties to make it to the quarter-final of the world cup. Meanwhile, Vote Leave leaked news that the Electoral Commission is set to find it breached electoral law during the Brexit referendum. This is not the most obvious example of news being buried in Westminster. But it could be one of the most significant. With Britain just months from falling off a Brexit cliff edge, and with no guarantee yet in place for a people’s poll on the final deal, the disastrous consequences of failing to meet fundamental standards of democracy will be felt for generations to come.
Vote Leave chose to release details of the allegations it’s trying to defend itself against before the Electoral Commission could present its findings. Presumably they wanted to take back control of the story. We now know the Electoral Commission has accused Vote Leave of breaching its official spending limit of £7m by channelling donations to a smaller campaign, BeLeave, with which it was allegedly coordinating. If Vote Leave cheated, we as voters deserve to know the full facts, and while Jolyon Maugham of the Good Law Project may well be right that it’s unlikely any court will deem the outcome of the referendum void, that doesn’t mean Vote Leave should get off scot free.
It is vital that the police be given the power to investigate and prosecute electoral offences. At the moment these powers are held by the Electoral Commission, but are effectively rendered toothless by a £20,000 limit on the fines that can be imposed for wrongdoing. If there is evidence they broke the law, Vote Leave’s directors should face criminal charges. But we also need unlimited fines and police action, backed and informed by the Electoral Commission as a regulatory body, if we want to deter cheating in future elections and referendums.