London Mayor Sadiq Khan was told by the Met that it hadn't "received" the documents, when really the police just hadn't bothered to pick them up. Image, Lee, Flickr, some rights reserved.
The Metropolitan Police Service ignored potential criminal evidence gathered by the Electoral Commission on three key pro-Brexit campaign groups for four months, openDemocracy can reveal.
Responding to widespread public criticism after openDemocracy revealed that the Met has not even begun an official investigation into Vote Leave, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU and Darren Grimes’s BeLeave campaign, Scotland Yard this week told London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, that it had only recently “received” the Electoral Commission’s evidence and therefore has had only weeks to assess its importance.
However, we can reveal that the Met was informed by the Commission in both May and July that evidence was ready to be picked up.
Although the Brexit timetable was reaching critically important stages, Scotland Yard officers then took till late August before asking the Commission for its files, and took a further three weeks to pick them up.
In normal London traffic, the distance between Scotland Yard’s Embankment headquarters and the Commission’s office in Bunhill Row in the City is around 15 minutes.
Commenting on the Met’s failure to get round to collecting the evidence for months, and their attempts to blame the Electoral Commission, senior Labour MP Jon Trickett said that “if politicians and their campaigns break the law, they should be treated just the same as everyone else”.
Cynical or incompetence?
A Whitehall official with close ties to the Electoral Commission called the Met’s lack of urgency “either staggeringly cynical or organisationally incompetent. And because the law is the job they are trusted with, giving an official explanation that does not stand up to scrutiny, now leaves them [the MPS] with serious questions to answer.”
When questioned about the police’s inaction by Green Party co-leader Siân Berry in the London Assembly this week, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan said his office had been told by Scotland Yard that a report published by openDemocracy last week, which cited “political sensitivities” as a factor in the stalled police investigations, was “inaccurate”.
However no one at the mayor’s office contacted openDemocracy for any comment, information or correspondence received from the Met.
Our reporting – which was later not challenged by the officer who initially spoke to openDemocracy – revealed that no investigations into three pro-Brexit groups (including the Vote Leave, the official campaign fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) had been started by the Metropolitan Police. The officer said that “political sensitivities” had been considered, and in a subsequent email clarified the issue by stating that “political sensitivities” related to “any allegation or referral relating to an election.”
According to the Electoral Commission, investigations into the Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns were concluded in reports on May 11 and July 17 respectively. The commission said that in both cases “we immediately referred the responsible person for each organisation to the police. At the same time, we informed the police of the referrals and explained that the evidence was ready to pass to them.”
The spokesman went on to say “The police asked for our files in late August and collected them within three weeks.
“You may have further questions about the timetable for requesting the files. These would be a matter for the police to explain.”
Sadiq Khan told the Assembly that Scotland Yard was now considering 2000 pages of evidence, adding that officials from the Crown Prosecution Service were also involved in the exercise. He said that as the matter was “operational” he could not comment further.
The Commission’s two referrals to Scotland Yard centred on the two main Leave campaigns. The first report, delivered on May 11 focused on Leave.EU. The organisation was fined £70,000 for overspending by at least £77,380. Its campaign chief, Liz Bilney, was referred to the police. The group’s co-founder, Arron Banks, said the electoral watchdog had been engaged in a “ridiculous witch hunt.” He called the commission a “Blairite swamp creation packed full of remoaners.”
The second referral was on July 17 and centred on Vote Leave, the officially designated leave group fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. It was fined £61,000 after the commission found “significant evidence” of illegal unreported coordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave, a campaign run by fashion student, Darren Grimes. The commission identified an overspend of over £500,000 on the legal limit of £7 million, with significant funds channelled to BeLeave.
Among the evidence folio sent to the Met was information on the £675,000 spending by BeLeave with the digital company Aggregate IQ. The commission stated that this spending should have been declared by Vote Leave.
Vote Leave was co-founded by Michael Gove’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings. Its campaign committee included the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson and the former Brexit minister and European Research Group co-leader, Steve Baker MP.
Speaking to openDemocracy, shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett said: “It’s important to acknowledge that the police have been stretched to breaking point by almost a decade of Conservative cuts. But faith in democracy is too fragile to leave serious questions unanswered for a prolonged period of time.
“Those involved in this investigation must do everything they can to reassure the public that if politicians and their campaigns break the law, they will be treated in just the same way as everyone else.”
Speaking to the Observer last week, the Conservative MP Damian Collins called for an investigation into the Leave campaigns akin to the investigation of the Trump campaign by US special counsel Robert Mueller.
Earlier this week, SNP chief whip, Pete Wishart, asked Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions about openDemocracy’s article, telling the Commons: “The Vote Leave campaign might just have cheated its way to victory”, yet “the police refuse to investigate, because of what they say are political sensitivities”.
Although the prime minister said the Electoral Commission’s reports would be reviewed by the government, she reminded the Commons of the result of the referendum, the turnout, and added “it is up this parliament, this government, to deliver on that mandate.” The question came after nearly 80 national politicians signed a letter to the Met calling on them to investigate.
Meanwhile the campaign group Unlock Democracy has launched a petition calling on the Met to launch a formal investigation into the campaigns. So far it had been signed by nearly 9,000 people.
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.