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5 questions about Leave.EU that still need answering

by Sebastian O’Meara | 22.05.2018

A fine of only £70,000 and referring a little-known person to the police should not be the last we hear of the probe into the Brexit campaign backed by Nigel Farage.

The Electoral Commission’s investigation into Leave.EU earlier this month and its testimony to MPs last week leave many questions hanging. Here are five of the most important.

How much did Leave.EU overspend?

Leave.EU was only entitled to spend £700,000 during the referendum period. The Commission says Leave.EU overspent by “at least £77,380”. But it adds that the “unlawful over-spend may well have been considerably higher than that”.

The watchdog mentions that services received from US-based campaign strategy firm Goddard Gunster were not included in the group’s spending return, “despite a proportion of them having been used during Leave.EU’s referendum campaign”.

Leave.EU’s co-chairman Arron Banks thanked Goddard Gunster profusely for its help after the campaign. He was quoted in a Leave.EU press release, saying:

“They made our social media effort a massive success; providing a platform far bigger than the ones built up by either the Remain campaign or the official Vote Leave group. We ended up with almost 100,000 followers on Twitter and 800,000 supporters on Facebook, where our weekly post reach often exceeded 20 million people.”

Who might have committed offences?

The Commission says it has “reasonable grounds to suspect” Leave.EU’s chief executive, Liz Bilney, committed criminal offences and has referred her to the Metropolitan Police.

Was she the only person involved in the campaign who might have committed such an offence? Liam Byrne, a Labour MP, is quoted in the Guardian as saying: “It seems highly unlikely that in this case the named responsible officer was acting on purely her own designs.”

The Commission told MPs it could not comment on whether anyone other than Bilney has committed an offence, saying it was for police to figure this out.

Where did Banks’ money come from?

Banks lent Leave.EU £6 million. Better For the Country (BFTC), of which he is a director, gave £2.4 million to various other pro-Brexit groups including UKIP and Grassroots Out. The Commission’s investigation into whether Banks and BTFC were the true sources of this money, among other matters, is still ongoing.

What did Cambridge Analytica do for Leave.EU?

The Commission’s investigation “found no evidence that Leave.EU received donations or paid-for services from Cambridge Analytica for its referendum campaigning and found that the relationship did not develop beyond initial scoping work”.

When questioned by MPs, the Commission wasn’t so categorical, admitting that more evidence on Cambridge Analytica continues to come to light.

Did Banks and Leave.EU misuse data?

Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director told MPs last month she had seen “with my own eyes” data from Eldon Insurance, Banks’s insurance company, being used by the Leave.EU. She said information misuse among his businesses and campaigns was “rife”. Cambridge Analytica’s pitch document to Leave.EU suggests clarity is needed here.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating Banks and Leave.EU over possible data protection breaches.

No lack of questions then. The Commission told MPs it hoped to conclude all its referendum investigations – including one into Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign fronted by Boris Johnson –  this year, “hopefully by the summer”.

Banks’ response to the Commission’s fines was typically irreverent: “The Electoral Commission went big game fishing and found a few ‘aged’ dead sardines on the beach. So much for the big conspiracy! What a shambles, we will see them in court.”

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon