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Q+A: why is Vote Leave under investigation for its Brexit spending?

The Electoral Commission has reopened an investigation into allegations that Vote Leave, the official campaign for taking the UK out of the European Union, breached spending rules in the run up to the 2016 referendum. Here’s what you need to know about the case.

What are the allegations against Vote Leave?

The two “designated” referendum campaigns (Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe) had an official spending limit of £7m each. However, there were a number of other independent campaigns that were either tangentially or more directly related to the Vote Leave official campaign. These operated with different spending limits. You may remember Leave.EU, for example, the campaign fronted by businessman Arron Banks and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The allegations are that Vote Leave colluded with a number of these campaigns to circumvent spending limits.

The commission is investigating whether Vote Leave funnelled money through third-party campaigns when it hit the official limit. This particular case centres around a £625,000 donation from Vote Leave to student Darren Grimes and another to the campaign Veterans for Britain.

It’s important to note that these donations were perfectly legal. Buzzfeed reported that both donations were used to run targeted campaigning through AggregateIQ – a previously unknown tech startup. The question is whether the smaller campaign was actually independent from Vote Leave or if the two were colluding with one another. It is against the law for Vote Leave to have co-ordinated with the smaller campaign about how it should spend donations. Adding to the intrigue was that, prior to these large donations, Grimes, Veterans for Britain and AggregateIQ seemed to be relatively minor players in the campaign.

Why can’t the official campaign collude with an unofficial campaign?

It’s effectively a way of circumventing the rules. If the designated campaign has spent its £7m, then funnels surplus cash into other organisations with strict instructions as to how the money should be spent, then the limit is effectively obsolete. Now, some might say that the fact that the official campaign can donate surplus money to other campaigns makes the spending limit effectively obsolete anyway. I couldn’t possibly comment.

What could happen if the commission rules against Vote Leave?

If the commission decides Vote Leave did collude with either Grimes or Veterans for Britain it could levy a £20,000 fine for every offence. That’s what happened earlier this year when the Conservative party was found to have incorrectly reported its election spending. Without further information it’s hard to estimate the size of the fine. It is worth remembering that the £70,000 fine levied to the Conservatives this year was the largest ever. The commission also bemoaned that these fines were seen as “a cost of doing business” – a price worth paying for electoral success.

What happens now?

The investigation is unlikely to be speedy, although because this is a reopened case, rather than a new one, we might expect it to quicker than most. However, again it’s worth using the Conservative expenses episode as a yardstick here. This misspending was first reported in February 2016 and Craig MacKinlay, an MP accused of misreporting his expenses, won’t stand trial until mid-2018. These affairs, and investigations, do have a habit of running on and on.

As per usual, just about everyone is angry with the Electoral Commission. Some think it should never have closed this case in the first place. Others think its trying to obstruct Brexit.

The commission is used to criticism by now. It even managed to fire off an open letter to Banks (also under investigation for a separate offence) which, for the regulator at least, was dripping with shade.

Donating is OK but colluding is another matter. Stefan Rousseau/PA

Finally, I’d expect the words Remoaner and Brexiteer to be thrown around with gay abandon regarding this case. This, in truth, isn’t particularly helpful to anyone. Say what you like about the Electoral Commission but it has always played things with a pretty straight bat. There are other investigations into both camps ongoing. If there has been wrongdoing on either side then it may well be worth looking into closing loopholes and creating better regulation.

So this case might even benefit – and this is a big ask – from being separated from subjective views about the Leave campaign, why Britain voted to leave and if the concerns of the 52% (or indeed 48%) are being adequately addressed. Electoral integrity is for life after all, not just for Brexit.

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