Tom Brake: People are entitled to know if Leave won by cheating

Yesterday, Tom Brake led a debate in Parliament about the allegations of cheating by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum.

You can read the whole debate here.

As I listened to the debate, I felt that the atmosphere was reminiscent of the hostility Charles Kennedy faced when he got up to oppose the Iraq war. Apart from the Minister, there were no substantive speeches from the Tories, but they did shower Tom with contemptuous and irrelevant questions in an attempt to detract attention from the serious allegations.

Charles Kennedy was widely shown to have been right in 2005 and the same is likely for the Lib Dems and Brexit. Whether that will come in time is yet to be seen.

Here are the main points of Tom’s speech:

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the EU referendum and alleged breaches of electoral law.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for helping to facilitate this debate, which as you said yesterday, was in order for an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24. I start by reminding colleagues of what the Prime Minister said yesterday about Brexit:

“They want us to get on with it, and that is what we are going to do.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2018; Vol. 638, c. 525.]

She also dismissed concerns about Vote Leave’s activities, in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), who is not in his place but was here yesterday. She is hiding behind an increasingly tatty and threadbare comfort blanket—the will of the people: her sole justification for the disastrous act of self-harm she is imposing on the country. She has not in this place been able to deploy any sound economic, diplomatic, cultural or security reasons why Brexit is good for the country, but she has frequently referred to the will of the people.

I want to focus briefly on the Electoral Commission. This is how its website describes its role in relation to referendums:

“Our focus is on voters and on putting their interests first. Our objectives for referendums are that:…they should be well-run and produce results that are accepted…there should be integrity and transparency of campaign funding and expenditure”.

It is safe to say that neither of those objectives was met with respect to the EU referendum campaign—I am not blaming the Electoral Commission but others involved in the campaign.

What action has the Electoral Commission taken to date? The allegations we read about this weekend were new allegations, but there were existing allegations working their way through the system. I thank WhatDoTheyKnow, openDemocracy and FairVote for their work on this issue. They obtained internal emails from the Electoral Commission that described Darren Grimes’ spending as “unusual”. I think we can all agree it was remarkable that someone whose organisation in the first 10 weeks of its existence apparently managed to raise £107 was given £625,000 to spend in a completely uncontrolled manner. It is remarkable that such confidence was placed in that organisation and the one or two people behind it.

In the internal emails, the Electoral Commission described Grimes’ spending as “unusual” and found that he broke some of its rules, but it decided to take the matter no further as there were “no reasonable grounds” to believe that Vote Leave and Grimes had been working together.

I must say that the Electoral Commission will have to have very clear reasons if it does not believe this to be the case now, following those new allegations from three whistleblowers at the heart of the Vote Leave-BeLeave machine. It is worth underlining that they are new allegations. What we have heard from the supporters of Vote Leave is “All this has been investigated. There is nothing new here”, but these allegations from three whistleblowers at the centre of the organisation are completely new. These are matters that have not been investigated. Anyone who supported Vote Leave and is now saying, “Don’t bother, it has been done” is wrong.

I will come on to some reforms that might be needed in terms of the law. Some of what has gone on, if it is indeed within the law, should concern us very much, and we may need to look very carefully at the law itself.

The new nature of the allegations is critical, because the Brexit cheerleaders, such as the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, have been quick to say “Nothing to see here. Move on. The result must be respected. Vote Leave won fair and square.” They will pretend that all this has been investigated before. It has not, and only when it has will we know whether the trail of deceit which so publicly started with the incredible slogan slapped on the side of that infamous red bus—the Foreign Secretary’s comprehensively demolished claim that there would be £350 million a week for the NHS, which he keeps repeating to this day—leads directly to today’s Cabinet table.

I want to focus briefly on the issue of the Electoral Commission’s resources. It has confirmed in answer to my letter that it does have the resources it needs. I welcome that and take its word for it; however, when I was a Minister and had some responsibility for this area I was aware from contact with charities, political groups and others that the Electoral Commission often struggled to respond to queries in a timely manner, and there was always an appetite for more guidance and more detailed guidance. Perhaps the resourcing has changed, as it seems to be confident that it has what it needs to investigate this, but, as I said earlier, my hon. Friends and I have concerns about the progress made on some of the existing inquiries.

As long ago as 10 March last year Lord Tyler drew the attention of the Minister in the Lords to the fact that the leave campaign stood accused not only of lying in the substance of its campaign, but of cheating in the process of delivering it. He instanced the claim, which others have just referred to, by Arron Banks that Cambridge Analytica had played a crucial role in the campaign and “won it for Leave”. He also described the use of a very substantial anonymous donation to the Democratic Unionist party, as has also been mentioned, to fund a campaign wholly targeted at the British mainland. I am a little perplexed as to why those on the Conservative Benches do not get aggravated about the fact that in the UK it is fine for a very large anonymous donation to be made to a political party such as the DUP and for it then to be spent not in Northern Ireland. That smells rather bad to me, and I am surprised that Conservative Members do not share my concern.

I am now going to ask the Minister some questions which I hope she will be able to answer. In some respects I feel sorry for her in this, as I know her to be a very fair Minister. I would much rather have had the Foreign Secretary here to answer questions, because he has a lot of questions to answer in this respect, including on the role he played in the Vote Leave campaign.

I hope the Minister will be able to explain why the investigations of the existing allegations have taken so long. Is that a question of the Electoral Commission or the police lacking appropriate powers or resources? We have heard that the Electoral Commission has said it is not a resource problem. Is there a discrepancy between the different statutory regimes for elections on the one hand and for referendums on the other, which cause difficulty in the examination of infringements? Do these differences cause particular problems when seeking to establish illegal collusion or ineligible donors?

Can the Minister also set out what action the UK Government intend to take to address any failings in electoral law they or the Electoral Commission have already identified, and set out what mechanisms are in place to right past electoral wrongs? Given the narrow margin of the result—for every 17 people who voted to leave, 16 voted to remain—does the Minister recognise that continuing doubts about the referendum’s integrity fuel challenges to the legitimacy of the entire Brexit process? Is the Minister confident that no one who works for the Conservative party, or indeed Ministers or the Prime Minister, is going to be charged as part of this investigation?

I will conclude by saying that whether people voted leave or remain, they are entitled to know that the EU referendum campaign was fairly and squarely delivered, or that people were in fact cheated and the law was broken. As Members from all opposition parties, at least, have said, this will require a thorough investigation. It requires Ministers to refrain from the Trumpian tweeting preferred by the Foreign Secretary, who has already said that there is no case to answer before the case has actually been heard.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Nick Collins 28th Mar '18 - 9:31am

    An excellent speech which deserves more coverage than it is likely to get.

    It seems that something akin to ball tampering was employed to swing the result of the referendum: a farce whose result becomes less worthy of respect with each passing day.

  • William Roy 28th Mar '18 - 9:31am

    Can we please look at this LOGICALLY.

    How can anyone decide whether the votes cast for either side were made through ‘cheating’? This would require every single person who voted to prove how they voted (which cannot be done as our votes are not recorded on a personal level) and then to say that they only voted one way or another due to ‘cheating’ by one side or the other.

    It must also be pointed out, and quite categorically, that the biggest ‘cheat’ in the referendum was of course the Remain campaign who threatened all types of Armageddon would occur both to the UK and all its peoples should they vote to leave the EU. This of course has been now proven to be lies. But of course let us not overlook the fact that also what the various ‘Leave’ campaigns are accused of also applies to the Remain campaigns – but on a much greater scale.

    If you want to only ask a one sided question that is fine, but surely it is better for you to at least be honest and look at both sides – after all you wouldn’t want to be thought of as misleading and even perhaps as far as cheating the readers of your article would you.

  • nigel hunter 28th Mar '18 - 10:11am

    To look at it LOGICALLY both sides played the fear/lying game. We will only know the consequences of the decision AFTER we have left.We can then cry in our beers or celebrate a sense of relief that the World has not fallen about our ears.In the men time the world looks on in puzzlement.

  • John Marriott 28th Mar '18 - 10:30am

    Please can we stop making excuses? The referendum campaign was a shambles on both sides of the argument. The fact is that the EU failed to resonate with a large chunk of our population, whether we like it or not. It’s no good talking about 60 years of peace and the economic benefits of membership. Many people had had their minds made up for them many years ago. I think it was Napoleon who famously said that an army moves at the speed of its slowest soldier. Clearly the pace at which some nations were prepared to move towards ever more integration did not suit all, especially an island nation like ours with an atavistic suspicion of ‘the foreigner’, “The EU in ten years time?” “About the same.” I bet Nick Clegg regrets making that remark. If he doesn’t, then it’s clear just how out of touch he and his fellow EU fans have been and probably still are.

  • Most of the nasty things predicted by Remain have happened in the timescale they predicted. As we have not yet left the EU some of the predictions have not yet been fulfilled and no one knows whether they will be but there is every likelihood that it will be so. It will be too late then.

  • Michael Cole 28th Mar '18 - 11:42am

    In my opinion the referendum was not legitimate even before the alleged breaches of electoral law.

    It asked people to give a simplistic yes/no answer to very complex questions. Its purpose was not ‘to let the people have their say’; everyone knows it was an attempt to resolve a problem within the Conservative Party and vis-avis UKIP.

    Having read ‘All Out War’ the account by Tim Shipman of the full story of Brexit, it is apparent to me that Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Brexit campaign, is a very smart and very cynical operator. The case for a full and thorough investigation is overwhelming.

  • Teejay: I did not say all of the nasty things had happened but the fall in the value of the pound happened almost immediately. Both sides exaggerated and they should not have done. I suspect that nothing much will change for a while but the Government of the country has been almost brought to a standstill by something whose effects are unknown and not really worth all this disruption.

    Michael Cole is absolutely right.

  • Sean Hyland 28th Mar '18 - 1:34pm

    Some questions
    1) why wait till now to raise these allegations? Would it not have been better to raise these concerns when the Electoral Commission were first examining the campaigns and there finances?
    2) What are the actual ” smoking gun” pieces of evidence? At the moment all I have seen reported are inference and suggestions combined with stated personal belief that something took place.
    3) Are there not also allegations re similar financial concerns about the Remain campaign? Should these also be investigated and speeches made in Parliament?

    This is not a defense of the Leave campaign. If wrongdoing occurred than action should take place against those responsible. I would suggest that the referendum result was not due to cheating but due to very poor campaigns by both sides.

  • Peter Martin 28th Mar '18 - 1:50pm

    “We wuz robbed!”

    That’s never going to be a winning argument. If the EU is such a great idea then those who are in favour of it should have been making a much more positive case. Instead the tone of the campaign was negative. The argument seemed to be that if everyone thought things were bad before the EUref just wait until how much worse everything would be afterwards.

    People didn’t buy it. They looked over the channel and it didn’t look at all good. Depressed economies. Mercantilistic economies. The rise of the far right. Yes an increase in the number of economic refugees from the poorer parts of the EU. All that when the UK was undergoing its own bout of self imposed austerity. If things were bad here how much worse could they be where the migrants were coming from?

  • Barry Lofty 28th Mar '18 - 4:23pm

    Just as usual, so many opposite views on the referendum. Well speaking for myself the E U may not be perfect but no one will defer me from the thought that we are much better in than out, and as for the rise in the far right across the channel I think we have the same problem here!!
    Well said Tom Brake.

  • paul barker 28th Mar '18 - 6:05pm

    The Pro Brexit comments here are down to the usual standard.
    The latest allegations are new & come from people invoved at the very heart of Leave campaigning, they are young people who threw themselves heart & soul into something they believed in. Since the Referendum they have had space to to remember & think & they have felt increasingly uncomfortable about what they did. It would have been easy for them to say to themselves that it was all over, theres no point dragging it all up again & we should praise their honesty & bravery in coming forward. They must have been aware of the way their former allies would turn on them.

  • Teresa Wilson 29th Mar '18 - 11:58am

    It really doesn’t matter if the remain campaign was pathetic or the warnings turned out to be exaggerated. Theresa May’s GE campaign was pathetic and no doubt her warnings about Corbyn will turn out to have been exaggerated if he ever gets to No 10. Such is the nature of political campaigning and we are all used to it. Neither Remain nor Mrs May have been investigated for their campaigning methods.

    Likewise, misspending in election campaigns seems to be endemic – so far the Lib Dems, the Conservatives, Labour and UKIP have all fallen foul of the rules, which we can only assume to be highly complex. Even the European Movement has had a fine issued (though in their case they actually overestimated the amount spent overall).

    What we have hear is a totally different case. It could not have been raised before because only now has the testimony of a whistleblower been available. It is no longer a matter of politicians being economic with the truth or bad accounting, it is the allegation of deliberate fraud committed against the electorate and against our democracy. It may prove a false or malicious accusation but it needs to be investigated. The correct response is not to sweep it under the carpet (Boris) or to engage in frantic ‘whataboutery’.

  • Peter Hirst 29th Mar '18 - 7:02pm

    It seems to me though of course I am prejudiced that the government is steam rolling this Brexit through and not even a General Election will prevent that. I would be thinking of at least an independent enquiry or a Royal Commission because of the implications of leaving. The problem is that once we’re out, we’re out and it, the government knows that. It also thinks that the fuss will die away once we leave. It’s sad that common sense cannot temper the referendum result. David Cameron has a lot to answer for. One possible scenario is that parliament votes down the deal, Theresa May resigns and we have another hung parliament. I’m not holding my breath.

  • Peter Watson 30th Mar '18 - 10:51am

    @Michael Cole “the referendum was not legitimate … It asked people to give a simplistic yes/no answer to very complex questions.”
    But this was Lib Dem policy right up until it was likely to happen. And still is insofar as if there is a transfer of power to the EU the party supports an In/Out referendum rather than one on that transfer.
    Sadly, challenging the legitimacy of a referendum and opposing the notion of holding one was not a good line to follow (witness the bad publicity of Nick Clegg and that leaflet). It simply gave the Lib Dem’s opponents another stick with which to beat a party whose reputation was already associated with U-turns and inconsistency.

  • david thorpe 30th Mar '18 - 11:48am

    thr liberal democrat remain campaign has already been found to have it got 48 per cent by cheating, the other side got 52 per cent by cheating, lets move on.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Apr '18 - 8:37pm

    Opposition to the Iraq war was mainly the reason why I voted Lib Dem when I last did.

    But, there’s really no comparison between opposing a war and supporting EU ordo liberal inspired oppression of the less well developed EU economies!

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