TaxPayers’ Alliance concedes it launched smears against Brexit whistleblower
Shahmir Sanni lost his job and was falsely vilified as a liar after revelations about Vote Leave spending
The rightwing pressure group the TaxPayers’ Alliance has conceded that it illegally sacked the whistleblower Shahmir Sanni for revealing unlawful overspending in the Brexit referendum campaign, in a case that could have a major impact on how lobbyists are described in the media.
In a development that lawyers have described as “almost unprecedented”, the group has also conceded that it illegally vilified Sanni on the BBC in coordination with a network of other “linked” organisations.
The Alliance has accepted all the allegations Sanni made during his action claiming unfair dismissal, wrongful dismissal, harassment and “dismissal by reason of a philosophical belief in the sanctity of British democracy”.
Significantly, it has also conceded that it is liable for what Sanni’s lawyer, Peter Daly of Bindmans, describes as “extreme public vilification”. Sanni had claimed that it was responsible for a smear attack published by the website Brexit Central, and that it coordinated “derogatory statements” made by the head of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, to the BBC, calling Sanni a “Walter Mitty fantasist” and “so-called whistleblower” and claiming that he was guilty of “completely lying” before an official finding by the Electoral Commission into the conduct of the Brexit referendum.
The disclosure is likely to have farreaching consequences for the way that broadcasters describe lobby groups. The uncontested claim stated that the TaxPayers’ Alliance is responsible for Elliott’s Brexit Central website as part of nine “linked” highprofile rightwing “thinktanks” that operate in and around offices at 55 Tufton Street in London and coordinate media and other strategy.
In Sanni’s case, they also coordinated with 10 Downing Street.
The network includes the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Leave Means Leave. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is calling for a full inquiry into the groups’ funding and said that in the interests of “openness and accountability” the BBC must make clear they are “lobbyists”, not “thinktanks” as they are sometimes referred to.
In March, Sanni revealed to the Observer massive overspending by the official Vote Leave campaign, that has now been found to be in breach of the law by the Electoral Commission. The day before this was published, 10 Downing Street released a statement that revealed Sanni was gay, and the TaxPayers’ Alliance subsequently sacked him from his job running its social media. It has now conceded in full Sanni’s claims and is liable to pay substantial damages.
Details of the Alliance’s relationship with No 10 and the role of Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s political secretary, will now not be heard in court. A separate claim by Sanni against 10 Downing Street is still ongoing. Sanni, who received an award from Gay Times last week, said: “It has proved that the TaxPayers’ Alliance sacked me for speaking the truth. And that there has been a coordinated effort by the Conservative establishment, including the government, to shut me down.
“And if they had fought the case in court as we wanted, they would have had reveal who their donors are. That they were prepared to admit their ille- gal behaviour on all counts shows how far they are willing to go to protect this information.
“Serious questions must be asked about who is funding them, what their exact relationship is with the government and why are they allowed a platform on national television.”
Chris Milsom, a barrister who specialises in whistleblowing cases, said: “To wave a white flag to avoid making disclosures in court is really unusual. They conceded everything. How does an ostensibly private company come to be working with Downing Street? Who are their funders?
“If this had been fully ventilated in a public hearing we could have found these things out. Instead they acknowledge they dismissed a whistleblower for whistleblowing about electoral crimes because of his philosophical belief in the sanctity of democracy. And then pilloried him for it. Is that an entity that is fit to be on the BBC, speaking on behalf of ‘taxpayers’?”
McDonnell said: “These organisations – even by their names – seek to portray themselves as independent, authoritative research bodies.”
In reality, he said, they were “virtual lobbyists” but never presented as such by the BBC and others. At the time of publication, the TaxPayers’ Alliance had not responded to the Observer’s request for comment
‘Serious questions must be asked about who funds them and why they are allowed a platform’
Portrait by Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer