Brexit campaigners face the prospect of more scrutiny over their conduct before the EU referendum after the Electoral Commission said it would review the implications of a court ruling on how to interpret political finance laws.
The latest case centres on a £435,000 donation to the Democratic Unionist party, the Northern Irish party that is allied to Theresa May, prime minister, in parliament.
Anti-Brexit campaigners allege the DUP spent the money without conducting adequate checks on its source, the little-known Constitutional Research Council, and they have concerns whether the donor directed how the money was spent, on advertising in the days before the 2016 vote.
The DUP and the CRC have denied any wrongdoing.
The commission, the UK watchdog in charge of enforcing campaign finance rules, had previously said there is insufficient evidence to open an investigation.
But Jolyon Maugham, a barrister, last week won a legal challenge against the commission for its narrow interpretation of campaign finance limits, which he argues has implications for how the donation to the DUP should be seen. The commission said on Tuesday that it was “currently reviewing the detail of the High Court ruling and considering our next steps”.
Mr Maugham has also raised £17,000 via crowdfunding for a possible legal challenge. “We will be asking the Electoral Commission to review both the DUP’s conduct and the CRC’s conduct,” he said. “If public authorities don’t do their jobs, that causes a real erosion in public trust in the establishment.”
The DUP did not respond to a request for comment on the possible challenge.
The dispute highlights how the EU referendum exposed weaknesses in the UK’s rules for campaign finance. The commission itself has called for “urgent action” to make laws “fit for purpose in a digital age”.
The main Brexit groups — Vote Leave, backed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and Leave.EU, backed by Nigel Farage — have incurred significant fines for overspending.
Brexit supporters say the fines are a distraction from voters’ real motivations. However, some anti-Brexit campaigners — including Mr Maugham — argue that such offences undermine the legitimacy of the 2016 vote to leave the EU.
By law political parties in Northern Ireland did not until recently have to reveal the source of donations, unlike in the rest of the UK.
In June the BBC detailed how the DUP spent £425,600 of the CRC’s donation during the referendum campaign, nearly all of it on advertising in the fortnight before the vote. More than half — £282,000 — went on a wraparound advert in London’s Metro, the UK’s most read print newspaper, reading “Take Back Control”. That advertisement was booked directly by the CRC’s only known member, on the DUP’s behalf, the BBC reported. The FT was unable to reach the CRC for comment.
The DUP spent a further £100,000 on online ads arranged by AggregateIQ, a Canadian company that also worked for Vote Leave. AggregateIQ said the ads had been arranged by a DUP politician who was at the time on secondment to Vote Leave.
Last week’s court ruling made clear that, if one campaign group gives money to another campaign group for a specific purpose, it must declare it as part of its own spending. The DUP told the BBC that it had directed the spending, independently of Vote Leave and the CRC.
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