Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the Vote Leave bus. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Vote Leave is back in the spotlight. The UK Electoral Commission is widely expected to find that the biggest pro-Brexit campaign group broke the law during the EU referendum, including through the “co-ordination” of a controversial £625,000 donation to a young fashion student, Darren Grimes. Fines for Vote Leave are likely, criminal charges could follow.
But who are the key people behind Vote Leave? Here’s a comprehensive guide to all the main characters involved.
UK foreign secretary, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson
Boris Johnson is a former Times journalist who was sacked for making up a quote from his godfather and lying to his editor about it. Despite this, he was given a job at the Telegraph by a connection from his time at Oxford University, Max Hastings, as the paper’s Brussels correspondent, a position he used to write a string of stories mocking and attacking the EU. “That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter,” according to Martin Fletcher, “They were colourful and fun”.
Johnson, also a former London mayor, was a member of the “core group” of Vote Leave’s campaigns committee which, according to the group’s website, met “on a daily basis”.
UK Environment secretary, Michael Gove
Michael Gove (front) with Darren Grimes (back). Image, Twitter, fair use.
A one-time Tory leadership candidate – after ‘stabbing Johnson in the back’ at the 11th hour – Gove was co-convenor of the Vote Leave campaign committee and another member of Vote Leave’s core group. Gove has previously denied knowledge of Vote Leave’s controversial £625,000 donation to fashion student Grimes and his micro-campaign BeLeave, which the Electoral Commission is expected to find constituted ‘working together’, in contravention of electoral law. Now Gove says his role in Vote Leave has been overstated. “I wasn’t involved in the day to day running of the campaign, I was out there making the case for leaving the EU rather than managing the hidden wiring of the campaign,” he told Sky News recently.
Vote Leave chief executive, Matthew Elliott
One of the few figures who still has a legal role in Vote Leave, acting as its company secretary, Elliott – who says that the Electoral Commission investigation is “a huge breach of natural justice” – has long been a key figure in the background of Conservative politics. He was chief executive of No2AV during the 2011 AV referendum, and founded the Taxpayers Alliance and Business for Britain. These days, Elliott works as editor-at-large at the website Brexit Central. He is a former fellow at the controversial Legatum Institute, which has hit headlines for its Brexit lobbying and been rapped over the knuckles by the charity regulator. Elliott also works for City firm Shore Capital, owned by Tory donor Howard Shore and Brexit backer, and has business links to the billionaire US political funders the Koch brothers. Elliott is one of only four people to remain listed as a director of Vote Leave Ltd.
Vote Leave campaign director, Dominic Cummings
Former Special Adviser to Michael Gove, Cummings previously worked for the Conservative Party and ran the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum on devolution in the North East of England in 2004. Cummings was campaign director of Vote Leave, and was a member of the ‘core group’ which oversaw the campaign.
A former Vote Leave staffer said that Cummings had a first rate political brain but less developed interpersonal skills. “Some people found him really odd,” the source said. Steve Baker Brexit minister and eminence grise of the ERG, a hard Brexit lobby group, has said of Cummings: “[He] is like political special forces. If you don’t care about what collateral damage you sustain, he’s your weapon of choice.” Cummings and Elliott frequently clashed during the referendum. More recently, Cummings has refused requests to appear before the high-profile UK parliamentary inquiry into ‘fake news’.
Former Labour MP, Gisela Stuart
Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston until last year, Stuart was chair of Vote Leave. She was also co-convenor of the Vote Leave campaign committee and a key presence on the core group, regularly speaking on behalf of the campaign at events across the country. In June 2016, Stuart was accused of having a conflict of interest relating to her involvement in a firm which, according to the Guardian, “advises individuals about their tax affairs and offers ‘offshore and international planning for non-domiciled and non-resident clients’.” The parliamentary standards commissioners found that Stuart had not breached any rules.
Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith, Frank Field, Priti Patel, Steve Baker, Nigel Dodds and many more
Numerous prominent politicians, mainly Conservative and Democratic Unionist (DUP), sat on the Vote Leave campaign committee, which met weekly. A number – such as Liam Fox and Steve Baker – now hold cabinet positions in charge of delivering Brexit. How many of them knew about the controversial and sudden donation to Darren Grimes’s ‘BeLeave’ campaign is not clear.
Vote Leave ‘responsible person’, Alan Halsell
The person legally responsible for Vote Leave is businessman and solicitor Alan Halsell. In a document submitted to the Electoral Commission, Vote Leave said “at the centre of the Vote Leave governance system is the Responsible Person. On 22 March, the Board decided that this role should henceforth be discharged by a non-executive officer, in order to maintain distance and independent oversight of the activities of the employed staff. The Board, therefore, decided to reassign the post to Alan Halsall, who is a solicitor, a member of Board of Directors, a member of the Finance Committee, a member of the Compliance Committee, as well as being a respected entrepreneur and business leader.”
Halsell rose to prominence as chairman (until 2015) of the pram manufacturers Silver Cross, famous as producers of iconic British prams used by the British royal family and China’s elite.
He also has a background in toy manufacturing, and is a former director of the British Toy and Hobby association.
As well as being the person legally responsible for Vote Leave, Halsell is listed on Companies House as one of three ‘people with significant control’ of Vote Leave Ltd and one of four remaining directors of Vote Leave Ltd. He’s also the former co-chair of the pro-Brexit group Business for Britain.
Vote Leave finance, Jon Moynihan
Moynihan was chairman of Vote Leave’s finance committee. Like Halsell, he is one of four remaining directors of Vote Leave Ltd and one of three people listed as owning the company. Moynihan is a significant donor to the Conservative Party, and was recently appointed to the board of the controversial ‘think tank’ the Institute for Economic Affairs. He is also president of the Royal Albert Hall. During the referendum, Moynihan encouraged listeners to the BBC’s Today Programme to vote leave because the EU spends money on “bridges to nowhere up in the far reaches of Scotland”.
Vote Leave compliance, Daniel Hodson
Hodson was chairman of Vote Leave’s Compliance Committee and remains a director of Vote Leave Ltd and one of its three owners. He’s a former chief executive of the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (LIFFE), and was director of “the City for Britain” pro-Brexit group. As well as being involved in Vote Leave, he was a key member of Business for Britain.
Business for Britain is registered at 55 Tufton Street, the same address as a number of prominent think tanks and campaign groups that refuse to disclose their donors, including the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Former Labour MP, Ian Davidson
Davidson, a Scottish Labour MPs who lost his seat to the SNP in 2015, was a member of the Leave Campaign’s ‘core group’. Asked by openDemocracy about news that the Electoral Commission is expected to find that Vote Leave broke the law during the referendum, and about the donation spent on Darren Grimes’s behalf, Davidson said: “I know absolutely nothing about this. I was not involved in any way…. I don’t know the group, I don’t know the individual to whom it is alleged the money has been given and I don’t know anything about the decision making process that led to him being given money if indeed he was.”
We haven’t seen the Electoral Commission report yet, and so there is no allegation that any of these people broke election laws.
This piece was edited on July 7 to reflect that Matthew Elliott is no longer involved with the Legatum Institute.