The establishment ‘Vote Leave‘ campaign – run by Conservative Party-linked figures Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings – has come under fire again, this time as it is revealed that the group planned to set up a number of front groups to circumvent referendum spending rules.
An e-mail authored by Steve Baker MP, the chairman of the front group Conservatives4Britain, claimed: “It is open to the Vote Leave family to create separate legal entities, each of which could spend £700,000: Vote Leave will be able to spend as much money as is necessary to win the referendum.”
The e-mail is believed to be a panicked response to the claim made by UKIP leader Nigel Farage that his party combined with the anti-establishment Leave.EU or Grassroots Out organisations would be able to legally spend a total of £12m in the referendum due to the Electoral Commission’s rules. By the book, UKIP could spend £4m, while Grassroots Out, if it gets the official campaign designation would be allowed to spend £7m. Leave.EU could then spend £700,000 as a third group.
This is thought to have panicked Vote Leave backers and donors, who know that if their campaign got the designation, they would spurn the chance to work with UKIP, effectively wasting £4m of party spending on duplicated efforts.
But Mr. Baker’s e-mail, according to the Times, would raise question marks over the result of the referendum, and could even nullify an ‘Out’ vote due to a breach in the rules. Jolyon Maugham, QC, one of Britain’s leading barristers, told the Times that Mr Baker was effectively proposing a criminal offence.
Mr Maugham said: “The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 imposes spending limits on the officially designated campaign bodies. What Steve Baker seems to be proposing is that Vote Leave will set up puppet ‘legal entities’ to escape that spending cap. If this were to happen, it would likely amount to a criminal offence.”
Vote Leave have set up a number of front groups, believed by journalists to be real, functioning organisations, but are more or less shell companies for Vote Leave’s “criminal” tactic.
Groups like Conservatives4Britain, Historians4Britain, Christians4Britain, Muslims4Britain, LabourLeave, and others are thought to be among the front organisations. They often share logos, signatories, and even chairmen.
The tactic began in earnest in 2015, when Mr. Elliott of Vote Leave started ‘Business for Britain’ which he then ‘got the support of’ for his own group, Vote Leave. Business for Britain originally claimed on its website that it was not in favour of leaving the European Union. A change in this policy last year caused several founding members, including Pimlico Plumbers chief executive Charlie Mullins, to resign.
The Vote Leave group has suffered knock on effects, with its campaign director Dominic Cummings proposing a “double referendum” which would see the result of Britain’s EU referendum effectively ignored in favour of another round of renegotiations with Brussels.
Last week, UKIP officially allied with the Grassroots Out organisation which is now seeking the Electoral Commission designation to be the official ‘out’ campaign. UKIP figures such as Suzanne Evans and Douglas Carswell MP continue to back Vote Leave despite the controversy – mostly due to their long-standing personal links to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan and Matthew Elliott.