Michael Gove (left) and Boris Johnson hold a press conference at Brexit HQ in Westminster, London. Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA ImagesOn September 11 2001, a UK government special advisor wrote a memo to department of transport staff. With the world transfixed by the horror in New York, she wrote, “it is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”
England beating Colombia on penalties in the World Cup does not have quite the same news value as the largest terrorist attack in US history, but for Vote Leave it does not matter much. Today is a very good day to bury bad news it seems, particularly the news that the Electoral Commission will find that the largest leave campaign broke UK electoral law during the Brexit referendum.
Late last night, with every front page and news bulletin dominated by the dramatic scenes at Spartak stadium, news broke on the BBC News website that Vote Leave is expected to be found guilty of four breaches of British electoral law, including telling a donor to give more than £600,000 to fashion student Darren Grimes just days before the vote. The draft Electoral Commission report - details of which have apparently been preemptively leaked to the BBC - follows a lengthy investigation prompted by reports from openDemocracy and others raising serious concerns about Vote Leave’s spending.
The Electoral Commission report has yet to be published. But anyone criticised in an official report has to be given advance warning prior to publication. (This legal process is known as ‘Maxwellisation’, after the late press baron Robert Maxwell.) So there’s at least a few prominent figures with some key details of the Commission’s findings in their back pocket.
As part of the BBC news story onetime Vote Leave head honcho Matthew Elliott appeared in a sit down interview with politics editor Laura Kuenssberg. Elliott denied that Vote Leave had broke any rules and decried the Commission for allegedly failing to follow due process - even though the final contents of the regulator's report are not known. (If Elliott said anything about the importance of allowing the regulator’s investigation to follow due process that ended up on the cutting room floor.)
Kuenssberg prefaced one question by saying that Vote Leave “might be innocent in theory but it sounds like you were guilty in practice”. Such a presumption of innocence - bestowed before the Electoral Commission report has even been published - is exactly what Vote Leave is hoping to establish in the public's mind now, before the potentially grisly findings come out in full.
We already knew that the Electoral Commission was expected to find against Vote Leave – because the BBC itself had reported news of the draft report two weeks previously. In that piece our election laws became ‘rules’ and, curiously, anonymous Vote Leave staff were afforded extensive space to rubbish the findings – an unnamed campaign source described the draft report as "bizarre" and having "gone way off track" in comments that featured far more prominently that reactions from named advocates for electoral reform.
So what’s the advantage for Vote Leave or anyone else in leaking a report critical of your own organisation? The answer to that was quickly apparent on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme this morning. The Electoral Commission cannot comment in advance of its own report so Elliott’s denials of any wrong-doing framed the story when it was reported on a two-way with Kuenssberg in the early hours.
Later, live on air, environment minister Michael Gove shrugged off questions about the Electoral Commission report, congratulating the BBC three times on a “great scoop”. Gove and Boris Johnson were both co-convenors of the Vote Leave campaign committee: the same Vote Leave which appears to have given the BBC a ‘scoop’ that looks more like crafty PR from Vote Leave than a genuine revelation.
The questions about what Vote Leave did during the referendum campaign matter. This is not about leave or remain. It is about how elections in the UK are regulated, now and into the future.
As we at openDemocracy and others have shown time and again, shady money and influence has an undue sway on British politics. In May, the Commission ruled that Arron Banks's Leave.EU broke electoral law. That the Electoral Commission has now found that the biggest Leave campaign – and a group that senior cabinet ministers were intimately involved with – broke the law should be headline news.
Instead, the Vote Leave story will be relegated by the football, and when it is mentioned, it is framed by Matthew Elliott’s denials. Textbook media management.
And the hope, for Vote Leave, is that when the Electoral Commission report is published today's spin will ensure the regulator's findings barely cause a ripple. That cannot be allowed to happen. At stake are fundamental questions about how our democracy works, and how our election laws are being broken.
Having given Matthew Elliott's denials so much airtime, it is incumbent on the BBC and others to report in full and at length the eventual Commission report, and to interrogate the serious questions it is expected to raise about how the referendum was won, and whether our democratic system was compromised.