The Brexit campaign group Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 and referred to the police by the Electoral Commission, which says it dodged spending limits by funnelling spending through the youth group BeLeave.
The revelations about the cheating and illegality at the heart of Vote Leave are shocking, but sadly not especially surprising. No one with half a brain believed that Vote Leave and their junior partners at BeLeave were acting independently of one another – particularly given BeLeave (run by a young fashion student) “chose” to spend the vast bulk of the money they had been gifted with the very same company that provided data analytics for Vote Leave. The brazenness of the mendacity is both appalling and revealing.
It is appalling, because this episode demonstrates how much we live in the era of the big lie. The bosses at Vote Leave believe they can hide in plain sight, bluster and mislead and then get away with it. Too often they are right. This behaviour is merely part of the same pattern of dishonesty that gave us “£350m for the NHS”.
It is revealing because of what this tells us about how our politics now works – or fails to work. Vote Leave felt free to cheat because the consequences were so minimal, even if caught. A £20,000 or £60,000 fine is nothing to these well-financed snake oil salesmen. Indeed, when the profound and malign influence they have achieved is stacked against such meagre sums, it could look like a bargain.
So, given the revelations, can we simply ditch the result of a crooked referendum and dump Brexit altogether? I’m afraid not. The vote still stands; the result is still the result. That is grotesque and unfair in many ways, but democracy is not sport. Yes, Leave cheated. That does not alone delegitimise the votes that were cast. The culprits should go to prison but alas the result must stand.
What this does do – I hope – is teach us valuable lessons about how we must safeguard our democracy the next time around. Firstly, everyone who was involved in Vote Leave’s operations – from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott – should now be barred from an ongoing role in our national conversation about Brexit. With each passing week, a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal becomes more and more likely. These charlatans can play no part in that campaign when it comes.
And secondly we must reform our electoral law with the upmost urgency. We need harsher punishments for conspiracies and deceptions such as Vote Leave’s – so that the penalty actively disincentives the crime. We need a more muscular Electoral Commission – able to investigate and whistleblow in real time, not after the fact. And we need strict and contemporaneous transparency over funding in campaigns, so that we can all see who is paying and who is pulling the strings.
Vote Leave cheated, that is now a matter of public record. The important thing now is to ensure that they and their ilk can never do so again.