Elections watchdog got law wrong on Brexit funds, court rules
The high court has ruled that the Electoral Commission misunderstood the law surrounding donations from the pro-Brexit group Vote Leave to Darren Grimes, the BeLeave founder.
In a devastating judgment for the UK’s elections watchdog, the court found its interpretation of the law was inconsistent with its language and purpose and it had tried to draw a distinction that would be “a recipe for abuse of the spending restrictions”. The Good Law Project, led by the barrister Jolyon Maugham QC, had sought a review of the commission’s decision to allow Vote Leave to donate to Grimes and not consider those funds to constitute its own spending.
Vote Leave has faced allegations of cheating during the Brexit referendum since it emerged that it had donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to Grimes, who then spent that money on the same political data consultancy as Vote Leave.
The group would have exceeded spending restrictions had it spent the money itself. Maugham said: “It is extraordinary that the body charged by parliament with ensuring the referendum was fair, acted unlawfully to ensure it was unfair.”
The judgment said the court had concluded that the commission misinterpreted the definition of “referendum expenses” in the legislation governing political campaign finance.
“The source of its error is a mistaken assumption that an individual or body which makes a donation to a permitted participant cannot thereby incur referendum expenses.” Vote Leave has argued that it acted according to the commission’s guidance.
“Either the Electoral Commission is wrong or the high court is wrong,” said Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s chief executive, who demanded that the commission retract its decision to fine the organisation over its donations to Grimes.
An Electoral Commission spokesperson said the court had reached the same conclusion as a subsequent commission investigation, which resulted in fines for Vote Leave and Grimes.