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The Metropolitan Police has stalled the launch of any criminal investigation into three pro-Brexit campaigns – citing “political sensitivities”, openDemocracy can reveal today. Despite being handed their first dossier of evidence of potential crimes committed by pro-Leave groups over five months ago, the police force has made no progress nor logged a formal case into the activities of either Vote Leave, fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or Leave.EU, the pro-Brexit campaign bankrolled by Arron Banks.
In May and July this year, the UK Electoral Commission reported that multiple breaches of electoral law, false declarations and covert campaign over-spending had taken place by pro-Leave groups during the 2016 EU referendum.
Substantial fines were levied, and the Electoral Commission’s reports and all related evidence were shared with Scotland Yard and the National Crime Agency. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) was then expected to investigate whether key individuals, including Leave.EU’s campaign chief, Liz Bilney; Vote Leave’s board official, David Halsall; and the founder of BeLeave, Darren Grimes, had committed related criminal offences.
Following inquiries by openDemocracy, the Met revealed it has yet to start any formal investigation, and has remained effectively stalled for months in “assessing evidence”. Pushed on why there has been no progress, or no formal case logged, a Scotland Yard spokesman admitted there were issues and “political sensitivities” that had to be taken into account. The Yard spokesman later added that the political issues related to “any allegation or referral relating to an election, and much else besides.”
‘Scandal’ and ‘police state’
The Met’s acknowledgement of “political sensitivities” as a factor in its investigation of a potential crime has raised concern in senior legal ranks.
Jolyon Maugham QC, the barrister who leads the anti-Brexit Good Law Project, told openDemocracy that it was “profoundly troubling” that the Met was delaying or even not opening its investigation into the Electoral Commission’s evidence.
“If the MPS are delaying an investigation into a likely crime because of political interference then ‘scandal’ does not begin to cover it. Were that true, we would be living in a police state where criminality was overlooked – if that criminality was expedient to the government,” Maugham said.
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said that breaking law during “one of the most critical moments in the UK’s history” made it of “urgent national interest that the police investigate what happened, how it happened and who was responsible.”
Watson added: “It is disappointing that no progress appears to have been made into these investigations months after they were supposed to start.”
Vote Leave: ‘Serious breaches of the law'
The Electoral Commission published its findings into the funding and spending of Vote Leave, the pro-Brexit group fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, in July. At the same time, the Metropolitan Police Service was sent a folio of evidence described as “clear and substantial” by Bob Posner, the commission’s legal counsel. He said the organisation had found “serious breaches of the laws put in place by parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums”.
The commission found “significant evidence” of illegally unreported co-ordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave, a campaign group run by fashion student Darren Grimes; it identified an overspend of almost £500,000 on the legal limit of £7 million; it claimed Vote Leave’s spending returns were inaccurate and totalled £236,000. Vote Leave was fined £61,000, Grimes £20,000, and Veterans for Britain, another pro-Brexit group, £250. [Update, 23 September 2019: Darren Grimes's fine for breaking electoral law was overturned on appeal in July 2019.]
Key evidence sent to the Met included spending of £675,000 by BeLeave with the digital data company Aggregate IQ. The Electoral Commission found that this spending should have been declared by Vote Leave.
Posner said that Vote Leave had “resisted the Commission’s investigation from the start”, refused to co-operate, and refused requests for interviews. The Commission said it was satisfied that Vote Leave’s board official David Halsall “knew or ought reasonably to have known” that spending limits would be exceeded.
The Vote Leave campaign was co-founded by Michael Gove’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings. Its campaign committee included the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the former Brexit minister and ERG strategist, Steve Baker, the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, the former International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, and the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab.
Vote Leave’s board, which is legally responsible for the campaign, included the leading Brexiteers Gisela Stuart, Lord Forsyth and Bernard Jenkin. Vote Leave rejected the findings of the Electoral Commission’s report
Arron Banks and Leave.EU: overspend ‘could have been much higher’
In May, the Electoral Commission fined Arron Banks’s Leave.EU campaign group £70,000 and referred its campaign chief, Liz Bilney, to Scotland Yard. As with the Vote Leave report, the Commission said Leave.EU breached multiple areas of electoral law, over-spent the legal campaign limits and delivered incomplete and inaccurate accounts to the Commission.
The Commission said the group spent at least £77,380 more than it declared, and so more than 10% above its spending limit, but that the overspend could have been much higher. The regulator complained at the time that it is only allowed to issue a maximum fine of £20,000 per offence, saying that it "considers this inadequate for serious offences of electoral or referendum law".
The founder of Leave.EU, Arron Banks, rejected the report saying the Commission had engaged in a “politically motivated attack on Brexit.” Banks called the commission a “Blairite swamp creation packed full of remoaners.”
Call for ‘urgent and thorough’ investigation
In the wake of the Electoral Commission reports, in August a group of 70 cross-party MPs, peers and MEPs, wrote to Cressida Dick, the Met commissioner, and to the Director General of the National Crime Agency, Lynne Owens. The letter stated that the Electoral Commission had limited powers of investigation and sanctions, and had no powers to prosecute. It urged the Met and the NCA to “investigate these matters thoroughly and with urgency.”
Within two weeks the Met’s commander of Specialist Crime, Stuart Cundy, and the NCA’s Director of Intelligence, Steve Smart, had replied to the MPs. Cundy said that the commission’s evidence was “being assessed by the MPS in order to make an informed decision as to whether a criminal investigation is required.”
Smart told the MPs that the NCA was “working alongside the MPS” and was also in close contact with “other government bodies on these issues.”
“No one should be surprised”
Two months on, the Met’s position on its investigations into the three Brexit organisations remains unchanged and appears to be going nowhere.
A senior Home Office source, close to the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, told openDemocracy: “No one should really be surprised that the Met have said there are political issues involved here. Of course there are. The Electoral Commission has done a thorough job. Fines have been made for the mistakes made. But we move on. We will soon know the shape of Brexit and maybe there are other issues that deserve our national attention more.”
This article was updated on 23 September 2019 to include the fact that Darren Grimes's fine for breaking electoral law was overturned on appeal in July 2019.
Update, 24 September 2019: The National Crime Agency has found no evidence that Arron Banks, Elizabeth Bilney, Better for the Country Ltd or Leave.EU committed a crime under electoral or company law. Its investigation related to a referral from the Electoral Commission on 1 November 2018. For more information see the NCA statement here.