Brexit: Vote Leave campaign group 'cheated' to bend referendum spending rules, whistleblower claims
Extraordinary allegation centres around the organisation’s links to another smaller campaign outfit
The officially designated Brexit campaign, Vote Leave, “cheated” during the European Union referendum and may have flouted campaign spending rules, a whistleblower has claimed.
The allegation centres around the organisation’s links to another smaller campaign group – BeLeave – which it helped fund.
Shahmir Sanni, who was a volunteer on the campaign, claimed Vote Leave used it to get around strict spending limits set by the Electoral Commission.
“I know that Vote Leave cheated,” he told Channel 4 News. “I know that people have been lied to and that the referendum wasn’t legitimate.”
Vote Leave has strongly denied wrongdoing and said the £625,000 donated to BeLeave in the final days of the campaign in 2016 was within the rules.
The claims came as Mr Sanni also said that Stephen Parkinson, his former boyfriend and political secretary to Theresa May, had publicly “outed” him as gay in the run-up to the Channel 4 and Observer disclosures over electoral spending.
Mr Parkinson, who at the time was a senior Vote Leave figure, disclosed on Friday that he had been in an 18-month personal relationship with fellow Brexit campaigner Mr Sanni.
But lawyers acting on behalf of Mr Sanni said: “My client is now having to come out to his mother and family tonight, and members of his family in Pakistan are being forced to take urgent protective measures to ensure their safety.”
And Mr Sanni said: “I never imagined that, with the help of Number 10, would chose to tell the world I am gay, in a last desperate attempt to scare me. This is something I’ve never told most of my friends or family, here or in Pakistan, some of whom are having to take measures to ensure their safety.
“He knew the danger it would cause, and that’s why he did it. My coming out should have happened at a moment of my choosing – not his or the Government’s. Some things are more important than politics and I hope that one day he agrees.”
Mr Sanni went to the Electoral Commission with two other pro-Brexit friends on Thursday, who say they helped the Vote Leave campaign two years ago, Channel 4 reported.
Their lawyers have given the election watchdog signed statements.
Mr Sanni told the broadcaster he was initially a Vote Leave outreach volunteer but he was then assigned to BeLeave.
Vote Leave said it did not recall Mr Sanni working as a volunteer, but he was “like hundreds of others who occasionally visited the offices”.
Mr Sanni said that he and BeLeave’s co-founder Darren Grimes always reported to Mr Parkinson.
“There was no time where anything BeLeave did didn’t go through Stephen,” he said.
In the final 10 days of the 2016 referendum campaign Vote Leave donated £625,000 to Mr Grimes, who was registered as a permitted participant, with the money used to pay Canadian data firm Aggregate IQ (AIQ), the programme said.
Asked whether they could have refused to spend the money on AIQ, Mr Sanni said: “We didn’t ever feel like we had that level of control.
“That’s what I mean, we never felt like we had control over the organisation itself.”
He claimed: “In effect they used BeLeave to over-spend, and not just by a small amount ... Almost two-thirds of a million pounds makes all the difference and it wasn’t legal.”
Mr Parkinson said he was “saddened” by the “factually incorrect and misleading” statements by Mr Sanni and his lawyers.
He added: “At the relevant time during the referendum period, the commission advised Vote Leave that it was permissible to make a donation in the way it proposed to do to BeLeave.
“Twice since the referendum the commission has investigated this matter, and twice it has found no evidence of wrongdoing. A third investigation into the same issue is currently taking place.
“The Electoral Commission has not contacted me in relation to any of these inquiries, but I will of course be happy to assist in them if they wish me to do so.
“I firmly deny the allegations in the programme. I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations on the Vote Leave campaign, and am confident that I stayed within the law and strict spending rules at all times.”
Mr Grimes also denies all the allegations, Channel 4 said.
A Vote Leave spokesman said it had “twice been cleared on this matter by the Electoral Commission” adding: “There are now a number of new accusations and allegations.
“While many of them seem irrelevant or trivial, some are serious and potentially damaging to the reputations of those caught up in those allegations. As has been the case throughout, Vote Leave is obligated to review – to the extent it can after this long elapsed period since the referendum – all such allegations, and is doing so.
“We will as appropriate share any relevant findings with the Electoral Commission, again as we have always done.”
An Electoral Commission spokeswoman said: “The commission has a number of investigations open in relation to campaigners at the EU Referendum; it does not comment on live investigations.”
Independent News Service