The recent revelations in connection with the Brexit campaign raise questions of the utmost seriousness for the functioning of our democracy. The whistleblower Sahmir Sanni has alleged that there was extensive collusion between the Vote Leave campaign and Be-Leave, an organisation also campaigning for the UK to leave the EU and for which Sanni was Treasurer and Secretary.
Sanni alleges that Be-leave was established by Vote Leave and that the money which it donated was in effect under the control of senior members of Vote Leave staff. Sanni also alleges that after the referendum, Vote Leave staff destroyed all electronic data relating to the interconnection between the two campaigns.
If these allegations of collusion are true then they amount to a serious breach of the regulations and a de facto fusion of the two campaign groups. This would result in an illegal overspend by as much as 10% of the statutory cap. It is too soon yet to draw firm conclusions that Vote Leave broke the rules. But there are clearly reasons to worry.
The Law on Referendums does not prevent donations from one campaign body to another. But it does forbid collusion between them. Otherwise there would not be a level playing field between the two sides in any referendum. If one campaign exceeds the spending cap by deliberately spawning satellite operations then that crucial principle of equity is lost.
This is in itself is worrying, and if the allegations directed at Vote Leave are proven to be true yet another example of how money distorts our democracy. But the implication of senior Government Ministers and the response of the Prime Minister herself are further cause for concern.
As is well known, Vote Leave was headed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The pair arguably owe their membership of the British Cabinet to their role in the Brexit campaign. The Government is up to their neck in this. Theresa May also saw fit to defend her Political Secretary, who shamefully dragged Mr Sanni’s personal life into the spotlight.
It demeans politics to attempt to destroy a whistleblower’s case not by addressing the matters which are being raised, but by insinuating a malicious personal motive on the part of the whistleblower. And it demeans the office of Prime Minister to tacitly endorse such actions.
In truth, we could not even discuss this issue if it were not for Mr Sanni’s bravery and the hard work of diligent, and honest journalists: a profession which politicians rarely thank.However uncomfortable it may be for the powerful, a functioning democracy needs people like these.
And government policy on whistleblowing is clear: “as a whistleblower you’re protected by law – you shouldn’t be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’.”
But Mr Sanni has been treated unfairly, and our democracy has suffered as a result.
Yet democracy depends on more than just journalists and their sources. It needs transparency and a rules-based level playing field. If these attributes are missing then our democracy will be in severe danger. The stakes have never been higher, as the referendum was a major turning point in this country’s history.
Given this, we must have a proper and urgent investigation. But the truth is that MPs or the Government itself should not be the ones to carry this out. Through it’s connections to Vote Leave and the actions of the Prime Minister, the Government have effectively discounted themselves as honest brokers.
Any investigation must be the remit of the Electoral Commission. But at present they are under-resourced and lack the necessary powers to carry out such a task. After all, look at the situation last week with the Information Commissioner. It took them all week to obtain the appropriate court order to have the right to gain access to Cambridge Analytica.
The Electoral Commission should be given the extra powers and resources it needs to follow the evidence wherever it takes them. They should then report to the public directly so that there is no suspicion of interference by interested parties in powerful places.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We’ve seen the Prime Minister beholden to the extreme wing of her party who are running wild and unchecked. If she wants to stand up for our democracy and to show she has nothing to hide, she will work with any investigation as a matter of urgency.
This is not about unpicking the referendum result, but about restoring public confidence in our democracy that has for too long been undermined by the influence of money.