Today, the Electoral Commission announced the findings of its investigation into Vote Leave and BeLeave: there was deemed to be definite collaboration, meaning that Vote Leave overspent their official limit by £625,000. The organisation has been fined £61,000 and the responsible people for both organisations, David Halsall and Darren Grimes respectfully, have been referred to the police for criminal investigation. A lot of Remainers think this is a gamechanger; that this will be the thing that kills Brexit. There are three major problems with this idea.
One is that what makes Brexit a legal reality isn’t the referendum result, which was strictly advisory, ie not legally binding, but the triggering of Article 50. Constitutionally, the government could have actually ignored the result. Politically, this was never possible, I’m only saying it was advisory in the strictest legal sense. What makes Brexit a legal reality, again, is the vote to trigger Article 50 in the House of Commons, which I seem to recall a certain Jeremy Bernard Corbyn not only voted for, but three lined whipped his party to vote for, ensuring it passed through the parliament with a massive majority. So, whomever cheated during the referendum campaign, it has no direct bearing on the Article 50 procedure which is what actually takes Britain out of the EU.
Secondly, electoral law around national referenda is not very effective. This is because prior to 2011, we pretty much never held them, and so what the Electoral Commission has basically done is map general election rules onto the referenda with few material changes. What works for general elections, turns out, doesn’t fit referenda too well. The assumption that is made with general elections is that if a party that wins a general election does so via a trail of lies, the ultimate recourse to this action will be felt by the same party at the ballot box in subsequent elections. The problem when you apply this logic to referenda is, the official campaigns set up to argue each side of the debate ultimately face only one election, and therefore this deterrent is 100% ineffective. We could rethink referenda – in fact, we really should – and make the rules around what happens when things go wrong stricter. But even if we do this, that still isn’t going to have any effect on the EU referendum result, which was fought, like it or not, under the old rules.
Finally, given those two things, the only way this finding will affect anything is through the impact it has on the wider public. By that I mean, if people get really upset about it, enough to change how people feel about leaving or remaining in the European Union. And I doubt that will happen. We are in the midst of a pretty out of control culture war on this topic, and logic will probably not cut through with most people. We’ll get things like “When is the investigation into the Remain campaign coming?”, which actually makes no sense at all given that if the Remain campaign cheated too the whole thing was even more corrupt, and the argument for another referendum becomes unavoidable – unless you’re avoiding logic.
Sorry to say this Remainers, but I don’t think this is going to change very much. If there are further revelations, and it turns out there was some undeniable grand conspiracy involving the Russians directly rigging the result somehow, everything might change. But it will probably take something that big to do it.