25 Mar Brexit whistleblower explains why the Vote Leave campaign was ‘totally illegal’
A whistleblower from the Vote Leave campaign has spoken out about how a donation of £675,000 to the BeLeave campaign allowed the former to sidestep a rule about over-spending during the EU Referendum, detailing his story in an extensive interview with The Guardian.
Shahmir Sanni volunteered to work for Vote Leave in early 2016. During his time here, Stephen Parkinson, who is now a member of Theresa May’s cabinet, asked Sanni and fellow campaigner, Darren Grimes, a then-23-year-old fashion student, to oversee the ‘BeLeave’ campaign, an initiative aimed at drumming up support to leave EU among younger voters.
The pair took on the challenge and grew the BeLeave campaign with a heavy focus on social media promotion, namely, Facebook advertisements. Around about a month prior to the referendum in June 2016, Cleo Watson, who like Parkinson, now works closely with the prime minister, told the pair that there was a donor interested in funding the BeLeave campaign.
But in order to get the funds, Vote Leave’s internal lawyer advised Sunni and Grimes that the only way they could get the money was to set up BeLeave as a separate organisation, which they did, registering the company under the names of the latter. In the weeks before the Brexit vote, there was no money in sight, until it was announced that the Vote Leave campaign had just received a donation of £1 million, and that BeLeave would receive around £700,000 of that sum, far more than the £40,000 they had proposed.
For the referendum, the spending limits for official designated campaigns was £7 million. No additional funding is allowed outside of this budget. Around the time of donation, Vote Leave were unsure about how they would find more money in the face of nearly spending most of their budget already. Hence, the money given to BeLeave allowed them to sidestep this rule, as they would end up spending the money BeLeave received, as long as the organisations were not seen to be ‘working together’.
“We were ecstatic. It was amazing. Can you imagine… you’re 22 and you’re given nearly a million pounds? I think I added that to my LinkedIn profile that same day” said Sunni, explaining the hysteria felt behind behind awarded such an influential sum of money to use at such a young age in his political career.
Once the money arrived, Sanni began to realise that it wouldn’t be BeLeave in charge of the funds after all: “They told us to set up the bank account, but no money ever went into it. I was the treasurer and secretary of BeLeave and I never saw the money. I had no control over it. It was Vote Leave who decided everything.”
The money was spent on Vote Leave’s Canadian data analytics firm, AggregateIQ (AIQ). AIQ were the recipients of £3.9m worth of funding throughout the referendum, including the £675,000 donated to BeLeave, and the company are closely linked to Cambridge Analytica.
The question was first raised by BuzzFeed in an article from August 2016 entitled: ““Why did Vote Leave donate £625,000 to a 23-year-old fashion student during the referendum?”. The article questions why such a sum of money was given to a ‘largely unknown student campaigner to spend in the final week of the campaign’.
Sanni’s tale about BeLeave comes as a part of the wider revelations made by Christopher Wylie, a former employee at Cambridge Analytica who blew the lid on how over 50 million Facebook had been used to profile individual voters, allowing them to be targeted with personalised political ads.
The donation is subject to many enquiries in the UK and has cast doubt about how the vote to the leave the EU was decided, as a rule about how much each campaign was seemingly dismissed. In an interview with Channel 4, Sanni said the Vote Leave campaign was ‘totally illegal’ and said they had cheated.
Read Shahmir Sanni’s full interview with The Guardian here.