A whistleblower has alleged that Vote Leave, the official Out campaign in the EU referendum fronted by British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, may have sidestepped election spending limits by using BeLeave, a smaller campaign group, to pay a Canadian data company with alleged links to Cambridge Analytica.
The allegations from BeLeave’s former treasurer Shahmir Sanni, published by the Observer and Channel 4 News on Saturday, will reignite controversy about whether Britain’s main pro-Brexit campaign group broke rules that restricted spending in the 2016 referendum to £7m per entity.
Mr Sanni said Vote Leave campaigners including Stephen Parkinson, who is now an adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, signed off on decisions made by BeLeave. Vote Leave gave the smaller campaign group £625,000.
Mr Sanni told the Observer that Vote Leave “didn’t really give us that money. They just pretended to. We had no control over it.”
The Liberal Democrats, which have campaigned for a second EU referendum, said the “stunning” allegations “touch directly on one of Theresa May’s closest advisers” and should be examined by the police. Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, said there were “big, big questions” to be asked in the wake of the allegations and called for an inquiry.
“I think it adds further questions as to how that referendum was run,” she said in an interview on the BBC’s Marr Show on Sunday.
The Electoral Commission is investigating whether Vote Leave flouted rules by co-ordinating the way donations to BeLeave were used to pay AggregateIQ, the Canadian data company that also received millions of pounds from Vote Leave during the campaign.
Anthony Clake, a senior partner at hedge fund Marshall Wace, donated £50,000 to BeLeave a week before the referendum in June 2016. His spokesman told the Financial Times that he had intended to donate the funds to the official Vote Leave campaign, which then advised him to donate the funds to BeLeave on the grounds it was close to its spending limit. Mr Clake transferred the money directly to AggregateIQ following a request from BeLeave, his spokesman confirmed on Sunday.
Vote Leave told the Observer it strongly denied linking up with BeLeave.
Mr Johnson on Saturday night tweeted: “Observer/C4 story utterly ludicrous, #VoteLeave won fair & square — and legally. We are leaving the EU in a year and going global.”
Darren Grimes, BeLeave’s former head, has frequently said BeLeave operated independently of Vote Leave and on Saturday denied the allegations made by Mr Sanni, saying they were “damaging” and “untrue”.
Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower, alleges that AggregateIQ has links to Cambridge Analytica, the data company at the heart of the recent Facebook scandal that allegedly used information from 50m users of the social network to manipulate voters in elections. The alleged links raise questions over whether the vote for Britain to leave the EU was aided by analytics companies using personal data to effectively target individual swing voters.
Mr Wylie told the Observer and Channel 4 News that there were multiple links between AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica, with the Canadian company working “almost as an internal department of Cambridge Analytica” at the time of the EU referendum.
Cambridge Analytica used AggregateIQ as a vendor for creating content and placing advertising, according to a former employee at Cambridge Analytica.
Lawyers for AggregateIQ said the company had “never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica. The [Vote Leave and BeLeave] accounts were kept separate at all times and there was no overlap or merging in any way.”
Mr Sanni said: “Leaving the European Union, I agree with. But I don’t agree with . . . losing what it means to be quite literally a functioning democracy.”
Mr Sanni’s evidence included screenshots published by the Observer that apparently showed Victoria Woodcock, the operations director for Vote Leave, deleting herself, campaign director Dominic Cummings and digital director Henry de Zoete from files shared by the two groups. Mr Cummings said in a blog post published on Friday that the information about Ms Woodcock was “completely false”.
Ms Woodcock told the Observer it was “untrue and completely unsupported by the evidence” that she had deliberately deleted data.
A solicitor for Vote Leave said it would investigate the allegations. “We will as appropriate share any relevant findings with the Electoral Commission, again as we have always done.”
The latest revelations add pressure to Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, which are already facing regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic after last weekend’s exposé.
On Friday night, 18 enforcement officers raided Cambridge Analytica’s offices to search databases and servers for evidence that the company had deleted leaked information on Facebook users as requested by the social network. Alexander Tayler, acting chief executive and chief data officer, was directly responsible for deleting the information in 2015 after requests from Facebook’s legal and compliance teams, according to a person close to the company.
Mr Tayler did not immediately reply to a request for comment. In a statement on Friday he said the company had deleted all the raw Facebook data as well as models that had been derived from it.
Additional reporting by Robert Wright in London