‘My feeling about Brexit was not anger at anybody else, it was anger at myself for not realising what was going on. I thought that all those Ukip people and those National Fronty people were in a little bubble. Then I thought: “Fuck, it was us, we were in the bubble, we didn’t notice it.” There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it.’ Brian Eno, with more self-awareness than Blair, Cameron, Osborne, Mandelson et al.
Carole Cadwalladr (CC) and Channel 4 (C4) have sent me and others involved in Vote Leave (VL) a list of questions concerning the referendum and allegations from Wylie and other ‘whistleblowers’. CC’s letter is attached below verbatim with only some names and libellous details about others deleted.
This is part of a long-running attempt by the Observer to claim that 1) VL was involved with Cambridge Analytica (CA) in a global conspiracy involving a nine-month long fight for the designation as the official campaign, covered intensely by the media, that was ‘really’ the most elaborate cover story since the D-Day deception operation, and 2) VL acted illegally in making donations to BeLeave (BL) and other campaign groups.
Because of Facebook’s incompetence in dealing with it (itself an interesting issue given it is so effective in other ways), this story has, ludicrously in most ways, gone global. Having mostly ignored it for 18 months, and now getting a string of hysterical emails from the media, I might as well try to explain some background to this nonsense then explore some details, including some details about the supposed whistleblowers including Wylie, who, I (re)discovered yesterday, tried to flog me the same crap he’s attacking CA for doing. I’ve also put in some links to serious work on some of the issues such as fake news and the effects of marketing and put in some names for journalists to call if they want details.
You’ll see some of this play out in the papers and on TV over the next few days. But at the end of it we’ll still be leaving the EU, CA will still be charlatans, and the media still (mostly) won’t explain data and (digital) marketing well.
The overall conspiracy — hedge funds and secret superpowers
Many powerful people, and journalists at the Guardian/Observer, got a horrible shock on the night of 23 June 2016. Rather than face reality many of them have created a fantasy and sold it hard. In doing this they are, ironically, mirroring those they say they hate.
Their fantasy involves a general argument that they lost the referendum as a local consequence of a global phenomenon — the world has been swept by a ‘new age of unreason’ as Osborne puts it. Yes, Osborne — the yacht-party drinking buddy of Putin’s oligarch sidekick Deripaska, the famously honest and scientific Osborne. Fake news and Facebook posts conned millions of ignorant people who don’t understand how the world really works, which we do, so they think. In this fantasy they are joined by legions of mainstream economists for whom it is obvious that Brexit is a disaster and those who voted for it are idiots or fantasists. These economists bounce from day to day convincing themselves that it was always obvious that what just happened was bound to happen — they must be constantly puzzled as to why they aren’t trillionaires.
This fantasy is much more convenient to believe than it is to face the fact that their campaign managed to lose despite having practically every force with power and money in the world on their side. How much easier is it on the psyche for Blair et al to avoid reflecting on why people didn’t trust them personally (e.g WMD/45 minutes) and didn’t believe their arguments (e.g remember the ‘immediate recession’ almost the entire economics profession predicted?), and didn’t trust their motives (e.g notice how all these powerful people from whichever party get rich and defend thieves who steal from the public?). How much easier is it to ignore the policy and management errors of those in charge from all parties (e.g Blair and Cameron simultaneously losing control of immigration AND not building public service infrastructure) that have led millions to conclude governments are run by incompetent crooks. How much easier is it to wallow in the feeling that they are heroic guardians of the truth fighting a malign global force. The relatively rich and privileged political-media world that almost entirely missed Brexit and the reasons for it has largely swallowed this comforting meme and spent two years talking, as usual, mainly to themselves.
This is the background psychology.
How wonderful, then, for there to pop up a story combining: Trump, Putin, Bannon, hedge fund billionaire and AI researcher Robert Mercer, an ominous sounding digital company, Cambridge Analytica, led by a gobby Etonian, then smash it together with Vote Leave, Farage, and the battle to control the referendum (best described by Shipman in All Out War). It feeds the psychology perfectly. A conspiracy of baddies (Putin, Trump, Farage, hedge funds), dangerous sounding technology (that approximately nobody in politics/media actually understands), awesome superpowers wielded by secret forces (often a powerful meme historically) and so on — the perfect conditions for ‘unreason’ to flourish.
Add on top of this a media-obsessed clown, Arron Banks, who having lost the designation battle to Vote Leave was desperate to claim any sort of role in the referendum so decided to brag after the vote about working with Cambridge Analytica ‘using AI’, before realising he had opened himself up to charges of illegality (viz reporting expenditure) and therefore quickly reverse-ferreted to say that everything he’d claimed had been to ‘wind up’ journalists. Having claimed CA was super-cool, he now claims he always realised they were charlatans. Of course, he couldn’t admit the truth — pure self-aggrandisement — and still can’t, caught between two incompatible lines of bullshit. Banks fits the bill perfectly for CC to fit a specific global conspiracy into the underlying psychology. ‘Evidence! Facebook! AI! Admitted!’
Ironically, the main reason for so much bad blood before the referendum campaign started was that a powerful network of MPs, donors, peers, and assorted ‘campaigners’ bought Banks’ bullshit about building a ‘digital army’. Powered by invincible ignorance, this network maintained that Banks was a digital guru who had hired a brilliant company to ‘do digital’ and Vote Leave should merge with them and let Banks control all data/digital elements of the campaign. Over and over again I would have meetings explaining ‘Facebook doesn’t work like that, Banks is spinning you crap, if he could do what he and CA claim then they’d be trillionaires, not hustling you for a few grand’ and on and on. Even though his supposed digital army consisted largely of Wigmore publishing offensive things they had to retract and apologise for, few in SW1 cottoned on at the time that he was a grade A bullshitter. A depressing time.
I and the other key people who ran Vote Leave told this network, which at one point extended dangerously into our own Board — ‘no way, they aren’t competent to run anything and they aren’t fit to have any role in the referendum, we will not work with them in any way’. Hence the war and Banks throwing everything he had not at Cameron and the Remain campaign but to replace me. VL’s relationship with Leave.EU was best described by Banks when he told the Times that he viewed Vote Leave as ‘the real enemy’.
It is doubly ironic, therefore, that the Guardian/Observer has tried to wrap VL and its staff into the CA story claiming, literally, that the entire fight over designation, and the coup to replace me, was really a deep cover charade designed to hide the fact that we were all secretly working together: ‘covert coordination’ as CC describes it in one of her stories. The author of the most authoritative book on the campaign, Tim Shipman, was asked about the probability that this deep conspiracy is true and replied — ‘zero percent’. The reason CC’s stories stayed in the ghetto of the Observer for 18 months until they escaped, like a virus a week ago to infect the global news system, is that approximately zero political journalists in the UK could buy this tale. Read Shipman’s account of the coup to remove me and subsequent events, think of all those involved, and ask yourself how likely it is that we acted all this out in an unprecedented political theatre. If I could do that, I’d be a trillionaire.
Another problem with CC’s theory is it requires that you believe simultaneously that a) Mercer/Putin et al are so brilliant and powerful they could orchestrate this global conspiracy AND b) it fell apart because they’re so dumb they entrusted the Brexit arm of it to Banks and Wigmore who promptly blabbed the whole dastardly scheme on the record to CC by mistake. For this story to be true would be like finding out that Trump ran for President as part of a secret plot with Obama. Could you prove it didn’t happen? Technically no but what would you bet on a theory like that being true?
CC’s bit of ‘evidence’ for this conspiracy? That a company which did digital execution for us, AIQ, once built some software for SCL in 2014. This is used to justify the claim that AIQ is legally obliged to hand over data from every client they ever have to SCL/CA. Of course, this is ludicrous. a) Such a contract would be illegal and unenforceable. b) AIQ was specifically bound by their contract with us not to share any data with anybody and to obey English law. c) AIQ has made clear that they never shared any of our data with anybody directly or indirectly. AIQ behaved professionally, they were careful about personal data, and I have no reason to think they were lying to VL and risking the destruction of their business and criminal prosecutions. [Added shortly after publication: NB. This ‘evidence’ was published by the Observer months ago — it isn’t new.]
Up against tough competition, the whole story is the most loony accusation I’ve ever faced in 20 years in politics. In normal times, such a loony story would get no play but these aren’t normal times. A powerful set of people will do anything to try to shift public opinion in order that they can overturn the referendum.
Leave aside the conspiracy: does what CA does work?! Does CA have superpowers to change minds, denied to other mortals?
Well one part of what they claim to have been doing definitely works. This week Nix was filmed in a sting operation on C4. On TV he was selling CA not on the basis of ‘super-sophisticated AI’ but on a very old trick — using super-hot Ukrainian girls to blow politicians up. When I lived in Moscow I met some girls who worked on KGB honey traps and I’ve got a lot more confidence in their methodology than I do in CA’s ‘psychographics’, though unfortunately for Nix, the Moscow approach ‘doesn’t scale’ as they say in the Valley. There’s not that many Milla Jovovich lookalikes with the right skill set.
These old school games are not what Nix was selling publicly. What about this ‘psychographic’ stuff?
I won’t go into any detail on this but just make some obvious points largely ignored.
The first thing to realise is that it is very hard to show that ANYTHING done in political campaigns / advertising works reliably.
Of course sometimes memes take off and some commercial advertising campaigns are a great success. But nobody has found a way to turn this into a method for reliably influencing politics.
Much of the political science world is dominated by bullshit ‘research’ and their claims cannot be relied on. One of the few reliable and interesting scholars in this field is David Broockman at Stanford. He recently published a big and interesting study including randomised control trials to detect campaign effects: The Minimal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments, Stoockman et al 2017. The conclusion? Almost everything campaigns do in America has no discernible effect when tested with RCTs. (NB. this finding was for US party elections — referendums are different.)
This broad conclusion holds for digital marketing. Almost all claims you read are bullshit, particularly if they involve CA’s magic potion of Big 5 personality type marketing. Is everything rubbish? No. Is there a method demonstrated to have reliable big effects? No. Does CA have Jedi powers? According to the experts, no chance.
It is hard to change people’s minds. We are evolved creatures. If we were all dopey dupes we wouldn’t be here, our ancestors would have all been killed. You’re reading this because your ancestors survived a brutal competition of sexual politics, this involves deceit and perceiving deceit, and this makes it an extremely non-trivial task to change minds at scale reliably in a competitive landscape. If it were a trivial task, our entire world would be unrecognisably different. People are always selling the idea that they have a magic bullet of persuasion. You won’t get poor by shorting such promises.
Do some companies have great power? Yes but only in limited ways. Facebook is in many ways a great company and Insider sneering at Zuckerberg is largely jealousy. (Their current problem is a consequence of senior people there not understanding rapidly changing political dynamics but they’ll learn about politics faster than the politicians learn about engineering.) But Facebook cannot program fashion and opinions. Neither can marketing companies — almost all they do fails. Nobody can in free societies (Communist/fascist countries are obviously a different argument.) It’s too complex. Facebook, like great politicians, surfs waves that it very rarely (if ever) creates. CA is a normal company in its field in my experience — it exploits the ignorance about marketing, data science, and psychology to sell snake oil to gullible people who almost never have the technical education to question them scientifically. That’s normal. What’s abnormal is that a large section of the media takes snake oil so seriously and suspends their usually hyper-critical faculties. The reason is that politics is melting their brains.
What about CC’s latest attempt to wrap all this up together?
CC has published a string of stories on all this, culminating last weekend with the whistleblower story on CA. This story had no relevance to Brexit. The core of the story is: an academic sucked data out of FB (using an API) for research (legal) then shared it with various people including CA (against the terms of his agreement with FB, possibly illegal). The combination of a ‘whistleblower’ with pink hair, a huge botched job by FB, quite clever coordination with the New York Times which has a very strong incentive to blame Facebook for Trump (rather than their own coverage of Hillary’s emails and so on, which dwarfed all ‘fake news’ social media in impact — cf. physicist Duncan Watts for detail), and the desire of many established players to screw Silicon Valley tech companies gave the story more legs than her previous ones.
FB has undoubtedly behaved incompetently over this and given a clear impression they do not care about users’ privacy, though almost everything you read about ‘Facebook selling your data’ in the context of this story is also rubbish. If you want to understand the complex facts, talk to someone like Benedict Evans (Andreessen Horowitz, one of the handful of the Valley’s top VC firms) or Antonio Garcia Martinez (former FB employee) who really understand FB’s business and the real details of their advertising model.
This story going global is a great example of how little facts matter and how much context matters when looking at news. Facebook’s screwup has been in the public domain for two years. Everybody ignored it. (From FB’s perspective, it’s a commercial equivalent of Obama’s campaign in 2007/8 ignoring Reverend Wright until it blew up in their faces — when it happens everyone says ‘how could we have ignored this?’). Add a few spicy elements to the coverage (Whistleblower), some intrigue (Nix’s car crash undercover filming), and a different political context (post-Brexit and Trump) and the same media and political people behave very differently. (Duncan Watts wrote a great paper about the role of randomness in social life and what makes ‘hits’ in Science, HERE, and this story is a good example.)
What about CC and her motives? Cadwalladr is a passionate supporter of Remain. She’s said that ‘the ideology of Brexit strikes against the idea of ourselves as a people in the most intimate way possible’. A quick glance of her tweets and you will find stuff like ‘Brexit STINKS’. In articles right after the vote she described Leave voters as ‘canon fodder… Lied to and manipulated and deceived’. She also claims ‘where was the counter-argument [to Vote Leave]? Nowhere’ ignoring the fact that Remain dominated TV news for a year with the exception of about 10 days. After the 2017 election she also insinuated that Vote Leave shared data with the Tories — again alleging criminal behaviour completely without any foundation. You get the picture. It’s OK to hate the result. Unlike many on the other side I have no reflexive dislike of people who voted differently to me. I never regarded the other other side as fools or evil the way Insiders do about Leave voters — which is one of the reasons they lost, as this mindset blinded them to reality beyond London. But it is very clear she regards herself as a campaigner and is in no sense an objective journalist dealing with both sides fairly.
Facts on BeLeave
BeLeave was set up up by Darren Grimes, a student, independent of VL. He was introduced to VL by people who had worked with him on Liberal Democrat campaigns — though not by Chris Wylie, as he is now claiming. Other VL staff were impressed by what became BeLeave around Christmas 2015 when they noticed Darren using a #Beleave hashtag on twitter and campaigning online. Some VL staff gradually got to know them as they did many other independent groups. They visited our offices. We helped them in various ways, which was legal. Inevitably people became friends and met socially, which was legal (for American readers / NYT the laws are nothing like those for PACS).
Our relationship changed a few weeks before the vote. In the later stages of the campaign, the Electoral Commission was under pressure over Government conduct. For example, Cameron had done an event at the British Museum. This would mean counting the expense (many thousands) against Remain’s ‘controlled expenditure’ if it counted as a Remain event. Remain claimed it was a ‘government event’ and there was no ‘coordination’ therefore no need for them to register any expenditure as theirs. If in fact it was ‘coordinated’ between No10 and Remain then it would count as ‘controlled expenditure’. If No10 and Remain lied about coordination, that would be illegal. The EC accepted government assurances. There were many such incidents for both sides.
Suddenly in May, at the height of the disputes described in the paragraph above, the EC told us that we could make donations to other campaigns. The idea that campaigns could donate to each other AND such a donation would not have to count as part of our expenditure, AND would not be regarded a priori as ‘coordination’ was a surprise to me and others. So we sought clarification from the EC and got it. We then made donations to BeLeave and others. Having struggled to raise money since we started a year earlier, at this point (roughly a month before the vote) we had the opposite problem: money was suddenly flooding in as donors thought we might actually win (almost nobody thought it possible before). So we gave some of it to other independent campaigns as the EC said we could. Everything was properly recorded and declared.
To be fair, this does prima facie seem weird. Why? Because campaigns are not supposed to ‘coordinate’ — if they do, then their expenditure must be combined. Given this, it would be reasonable to think that donations are a priori excluded. But the EC told us the law says they aren’t. (See details and documents below.)
The law defines ‘coordination’ as incurring controlled expenditure pursuant to a plan or other arrangement. Nobody really knows what this means including the EC. To give an example… In his book Unleashing Demons, Craig Oliver describes a daily call he ran with various Remain groups: ‘I join a 7.30 a.m. cross-party call chaired by Will Straw. It’s designed to catch up with what the In campaigns for the various political parties are doing that day. I want to get across a blunt message: this matters. We failed on immigration yesterday, hardly anyone stuck to our line that we accept it’s a problem, but Leave’s solution of trashing the economy is no way to deal with it.’
Many have construed this as illegal particularly given the EC also states that ‘In our view, you are very likely to be working together if … you coordinate your regulated campaign activity with another campaigner – for example, if you agree that you should each cover particular areas, arguments or voters’ (emphasis added). The EC says the above example doesn’t fall within this definition — so you can see just how hard it is to interpret what they will say about anything. VL had a meeting with groups (though more like fortnightly and did not discuss media lines) because we were also under an obligation as the official campaign to discuss the campaign with other leave groups. This was one of the reasons that the EC gave VL the designation — because we were talking to the disparate leave groups and therefore best represented the whole coalition. The two official campaigns were, therefore, effectively obliged both to ‘coordinate’ others by the EC’s designation criteria, in one sense of the word, and we were also forbidden to ‘coordinate’ in the legal sense of the word, though nobody including the EC itself could define clearly what this meant and where the boundaries were (and they still can’t).
Another example was the Remain campaign’s Ryanair event with Cable, Balls and Osborne. We were told repeatedly that if we did a joint event with X and X spent money on say the setting (arranging vehicles etc) then we would have to assume responsibility for the cost. But when the Government did an event with a huge airplane emblazoned with the Remain campaign’s slogan and we said ‘err, surely this is a joint event’, the EC again said ‘no, this is fine’. The event was counted as a Government event and so none of the cost was declared by StrongerIn, even though it was attended and spoken at by opposition politicians. It should also be noted that Ryanair did not register as a permitted participant (despite admitting on the record to spending more than the legal threshold of £10,000 in advertising) and generally broke the rules in umpteen ways. The Electoral Commission refused to investigate Ryanair despite their admissions.
This is an example of what I said more than a year ago — that the system was cobbled together by Blair then Cameron for what they thought was their own political advantage and Parliament has not taken the legal framework for our elections seriously, leaving many such gaps, confusions and so on. During the referendum nobody in power cared that EU citizens were voting illegally and posting the evidence on social media — ‘there’s no evidence’, the EC claimed when we presented them with evidence. Those in power passed rules which exempted the Government from the controls which applied to all others during the campaign, with the exception only of ‘purdah’ which applied only in the last four weeks and was routinely broken by the Government (e.g. Cameron’s plainly unlawful but now forgotten speech on the steps of Downing Street two days before the referendum). Another oddity is the loophole in the financing rules that Blair left so that Sinn Fein could raise money in America without having to declare the donors. This rule allowed the DUP to raise and spend money without declaring the source. Again, since the vote the Establishment has raged about this but BLAIR created these rules, not Vote Leave.
For a year, CC and others (such as @jolyon the lawyer) have waged a campaign claiming that our funding of BeLeave and other organisations was illegal. Jolyon has brought a Judicial Review of the EC decision. The Observer and CC are planning a new ‘scoop’ this weekend which seems to be a rehash of everything CC has been saying for 18 months.
1/ They’ve claimed repeatedly that my account above is false and that the EC provided no such guidance to VL. CC has written stories claiming I’d fabricated the whole story. Jolyon claimed the same on on twitter for months. A few days ago at the High Court, VL provided the court with documents proving that what I said was correct and CC and Jolyon have been talking rubbish for a year (document at bottom of blog). Of course, no trace of their errors appear in any of CC’s letters to us and they have made no admission that their accusations were false. They’ve just ignored the fact that their central allegation was false and thrown a load more allegations. What else has the Observer botched? Jolyon now admits the assurance was given by the EC but now is arguing it was unlawful for the EC to do this and is asking the court to declare that in giving it the EC failed in their duty to regulate the referendum. The Divisional Court today found at paragraphs - of its judgment that ‘in asserting that it had never given advice that Vote Leave could lawfully make the donation it did, the Commission was making a statement which, though literally true, was misleading’. The court found as a matter of fact that Vote Leave had been given the assurance that donating to other campaigns without coordination was lawful.’ CC and others should revisit their claims but they’ll just keep throwing arguments at the courts hoping something sticks enough to discredit VL and derail Brexit.
2/ In the letters (below) they make a string of claims that are factually wrong, hopelessly confused, or nonsensical — e.g they’ve copied and pasted the wrong bits of emails into emails to different people, rendering some allegations gibberish as they refer to the wrong person. It’s impossible to respond sensibly to a question about ‘your’ criminal act when it is obviously sent to the wrong person (which is one of the reasons why nobody is replying to these letters — upgrade your lawyers, Observer/C4). Some of these claims are supposedly supported by ‘whistleblowers’. The one named, Shahmir, was an occasional volunteer with no access to accounts and data which he claims he had. See below for Stephen Parkinson’s statement on this matter. For example:
- They claim that BL was registered as a separate company. It was never registered as a separate company.
- Their whistleblower claims ‘BeLeave was literally set up by Vote Leave’s lawyers. This was, allegedly, cheating on a grand scale.’ False. It was not ‘set up by Vote Leave’s lawyers’. Given there was no separate company, there was nothing for lawyers to ‘set up’. Darren Grimes actually registered himself personally with the EC rather than BeLeave — a mistake which was clearly not advised by any lawyer.
- They are factually wrong on details like who set up what website and legally wrong on the implications. They claim that the BeLeave website was ‘apparently paid for’ by a member of VL staff. False. It was set up by DG and documents prove it.
- They claim that VL suggested BeLeave could ‘receive a donation to spend on their own advertisement and projects if they set up their own campaign’, again getting the chronology wrong. BL was set up many months before any donation was a possible issue, and at a time when VL didn’t have nearly enough money to do the things we wanted, let alone make donations to others (we were almost insolvent in spring 2016).
- A ‘whistleblower’ claims that BeLeave volunteers had ‘no control over expenditure, or authority to spend even very small sums’. False. Darren Grimes himself paid for various things.
- They falsely claim that people who were actually locked out of VL’s system in 2016 or early 2017 had access to Vote Leave’s files and data in 2018.
- Wylie makes other claims about conversations he supposedly had. I won’t go into details as I understand there is legal action over this underway. Wylie’s account is strongly disputed.
- They have accused over a dozen different individuals of the same crimes in different letters — a classic fishing expedition hoping that, in the absence of proper evidence, different people will give contradictory answers and provide ‘evidence’ of a ‘coverup’. E.g They have accused multiple people of arranging the donation to BeLeave and accused multiple people of directing where that money eventually went. They accuse multiple people of still being the administrators for the Vote Leave data drive, when none of them are, and so on.
3/ They claim that members of VL who had left VL employment in 2016, who had moved onto other jobs, and who had been removed from any control of any VL data were responsible for ‘deleting’ emails/documents/records as part of a criminal conspiracy. This is factually wrong. It is part of a pattern of false accusations concerning data. For example, last year CC claimed that VL’s deletion of its database was part of an illegal coverup. This was a huge misunderstanding. In fact, VL had told the ICO that in order to protect the personal data of millions of people we would delete it as soon as possible. The Board authorised staff to do this (I was in the room when it was discussed several times and have notes). VL staff acted ethically, responsibly, and legally in deleting this and other personal data. But the Observer’s hysteria means this was transformed into more supposed ‘evidence’ of a criminal conspiracy. There are other similar examples.
4/ The lawyer Jolyon, who has worked with CC on this story, also claimed that I had accidentally admitted breaking the law (in my report on the campaign when I posted rough spending amounts). On 30 September last year Jolyon tweeted in his usual style: ‘Here is Vote Leave’s Campaign Director *admitting* they spent £3.3 m[illion] more than permitted. Yet still [the EC] wont act.’ After bluster and threats from this charlatan, who was trying to raise money off the back of his claim (interesting QCs are allowed to raise cash off the back of false/incompetent claims without consequence), he then deleted his tweet and apologised. (Salaries don’t count for ‘controlled expenditure’ so, not understanding the law, this QC ‘expert’ had added up the wrong numbers.) Within minutes he was back to throwing new allegations around social media and has carried on.
5/ The EC has now completed two separate investigations into BeLeave and found that we’d done nothing wrong. Jolyon and others brought a JR against the EC in response to which the EC has opened a third investigation which is still underway. Today, the Divisional Court granted permission to Jolyon to bring his claim on one ground, and refused it on a further three. Jolyon argues that referendum expenses and donations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If this is right, there would be perverse consequences for all campaigners. As the Divisional Court recognised at paragraph  of its judgment, ‘if making a donation of the kind described in paragraph 2(1)(c) of Schedule 15 also involves incurring a referendum expense, then only permitted participants could make such donations exceeding £10,000, and only the designation organisation could make such donations exceeding £700,000, without contravening the rules restricting campaign spending.’ In other words, this could have major implications for Remain campaign donors, such as Lord Sainsbury, who never registered as permitted participants but gave hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations. No one at the time thought this was against the law, and the court has not said that it is, only that Jolyon’s claim (in one respect only) meets the low threshold of being ‘arguable’ in a full judicial review.
6/ Throughout this process, the Observer has persecuted the young student, Darren Grimes, who set up BeLeave. They have had no compunction about making his life miserable, undermining his job prospects and so on, in order to try to pressure him into saying something they can use as part of their campaign against VL.
They are also happy to spread completely false stories about Victoria Woodcock, the Operations Director of Vote Leave. Not only was Vics the most important factor in our victory, she was also someone of extraordinary integrity. CC and C4 are trying to destroy her reputation with unfounded claims.
Who is the whistleblower?
Shahmir was a young graduate who volunteered to help VL and BL. He didn’t live in London, so only came into VL’s offices (as many volunteers who helped other campaigns did) occasionally. I have a vague memory I spoke to him in a corridor and may have been introduced. In 2016, Shahmir told VL’s director of compliance, who took detailed contemporaneous notes, that VL behaved legally and properly and Shahmir gave an account of what happened that is completely different to what he is now saying. I’ve no idea why he has decided to change his story, what his relationship with Wylie is, or anything else about the social lives of the whistleblowers and how this affected, if it has, what they are now saying. But journalists should ask him why he has changed his story. And did he tell the Observer/C4 about his previous account and the legal implications?
Until yesterday I had forgotten that Wylie came to pitch me for VL business in January 2016, selling data/digital services with a UK citizen and an ?American/Canadian (can’t remember). I did a search of my records for Wylie and up popped this email.
Screenshot of Wylie email
So I then searched further and found a Wylie reply to a reply from me:
I can’t remember much about my thought process other than a vague thought of ‘another charlatan’. Also by this time I already knew that I wasn’t interested in ‘psychographics’.
It is interesting however that Wylie was pitching to me to do ‘social data harvesting’ for VL after he left CA. This is the activity that he now claims is ‘grossly unethical’.
In his pitch doc (vote-leave-campaign-pilot-memo-FINAL PDF) he said that if we hired them ‘Several online panels would be set up to target a cross section of voters… We would try to further increase the sample by accessing the social networks of the panel respondents. We would also harvest online and social data’. He claimed that he would use ‘psychological methods … to predict personality and psychological traits of individual voters‘. Has Wylie shown his new media friends this document? When did he decide selling this stuff is evil? Presumably he’s now happy I turned him down.
A lot of people pitched me similar stuff but I never thought that the people concerned really knew what they were talking about and they never had convincing evidence. As far as I know I’ve never spoken with Wylie apart from this occasion — we certainly did not hire him in any capacity. Nor have I knowingly spoken to anybody from CA. Once I knew CA was involved with Arron, I deliberately tried to avoid any contact of any description with them.
I didn’t know anything about the personal relationships between Wylie/Shahmir/SP until a few days ago but here is Stephen Parkinson’s (SP) statement:
‘I was not introduced to Shahmir Sanni or Darren Grimes by Chris Wylie as he is claiming, but by a mutual friend from university. Shahmir became an occasional volunteer for Vote Leave and other leave campaigns, and we began a personal relationship. We subsequently dated for 18 months, splitting up – I thought amicably – in September 2017. That is the capacity in which I gave Shahmir advice and encouragement, and I can understand if the lines became blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups. I had no responsibility for digital campaigning or donations during the referendum, and am confident that Vote Leave acted entirely within the law and strict spending rules at all times.’
[Added the next day… The statement above was originally on this blog yesterday. Then I got requests on behalf of Shahmir to remove it on the grounds that relatives in Pakistan might get killed. Then Shahmir put out his own statement admitting the relationship and attacking Parkinson for ‘outing’ him. So I have restored the statement above and left the below here, so people can see the weird context. 1) Given the nature of Shahmir’s accusations against the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary, no reasonable person would have thought Parkinson could explain all this to the PM and media while hiding the fact of their relationship. 2) Shahmir’s behaviour is not consistent with someone prioritising relatives ‘at serious risk’ in Pakistan, to say the least. 3) Shahmir is unquestionably telling lies about BeLeave — either he was lying to VL’s board member in charge of compliance, who has detailed written notes taken after talking to Shahmir in 2016 about the independence of BeLeave (when Shahmir said it was all ethical and legal), or he is lying now. There’s no third alternative. Given all the other evidence about this, a reasonable person will conclude he’s probably lying now. Maybe it’s connected to his relationship (used in a general sense) with Wylie, maybe not. 4) Wylie literally has described himself as ‘a smear merchant’. Are the media going to report seriously allegations from someone like this? 5) An interesting side issue is that the legal point Shahmir’s lawyers used to try to gag the media yesterday is an ECHR point. It is absurd in principle and this case is a good example of why: person X makes accusations publicly about person Y then gets lawyers to tell Y ‘you can’t answer these accusations in a way that reveals anything about my sex life even if it’s directly relevant to the accusations’. The ECHR creates these legal problems all the time. The media should have had more courage to defend the public interest yesterday and ignored this argument. If I get involved in politics again, then a referendum on the ECHR should be high on the agenda — and bear in mind most people probably think we’re already leaving it because of the 2016 referendum, so imagine how mad they’ll be when they realise we’re still in it.]
[XXX NB. I have removed this statement. I have been sent a letter apparently from lawyers saying people might get killed as a consequence and asking me to remove it for their safety. Despite this being entirely the Observer’s/C4’s fault, I obviously won’t take any risk that people are physically attacked. I will take steps to discover if Bindmans are acting in good faith, whom for, and so on. If I think communications from Bindmans or subsequent coverage by CC/C4 reveal a lack of good faith, and seek to use my removal of this statement to claim, in any way shape or form that I have admitted fault/liability etc about anything, or make dishonest claims about the relationships of specific people because they think they can keep certain details secret using legal threats, then I will put it back up immediately as they will have revealed they were lying about physical dangers for political advantage. It is in your hands, CC/C4 and whistleblowers — I’m cutting you a break you don’t deserve. Journalists please note that I’m unclear what is happening and I’m just assuming this email is genuine given the scale of the issue. Also NB. the legal issue at stake concerns an aspect of the ECHR — and this reminds me that another project we need to get going is a referendum on that, much easier to win than the EU, we’ll win 65-35…]
What will happen next?
The Observer and C4 will publish another load of factually wrong claims about the ‘illegality’ of our donation to BeLeave. They’ll show interviews with ‘whistleblowers’ who were peripheral making invented claims about things they didn’t see. They’ll probably take their inventions about the destruction of documents to the ICO and police and demand that all our computers are seized to ‘stop us destroying evidence of the coverup’, in the hope that a subsequent trawl will expose something and justify their accusations. They’ll publish details of ‘secret social media groups’, and the papers will print salacious details of relationships. And so on.
Then diehard Remain MPs and their media cheerleaders will scream hysterically about how this ‘amazing story’ shows ‘a dangerous network of extremists’ stretching ‘from the Kremlin to Silicon Valley’ has ‘undermined democracy’ and ‘cheated the referendum’. And, most importantly, they’ll argue that this justifies cancelling the last vote and fighting for a rematch. The main objective is to delegitimise VL’s victory and try to cancel the referendum result.
One of the many bad effects of Trump has been the growth of the paranoid mindset in which people latch onto fragments and spin grotesque fabrications. CC’s claims about VL, CA and Brexit are very much in the Trump tradition. This is ironic but as Nietzsche warned, those who fight against dragons must beware lest they become a dragon, and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss shall gaze into thee…
On Sunday there will be a mini SW1 frenzy but it will pass. In a year, we leave the EU. This nonsense from corners of the media will likely soon not even be a footnote of a footnote in history. And if the current process collapses and MPs cancel the referendum and vote for another one, Vote Leave II will win by more than 52-48 — and there will be profound consequences for all parties and MPs.
To all you whistleblowers, as Vote Leave used to say, ‘We wish you well’.
Some documents below. I’d like to publish the C4 document but it’s so full of libellous claims I can’t do it in a way that renders it comprehensible.
LETTER FROM CC TO ME THIS WEEK (multiple copies of this have been sent with wrong sentences pasted from this master version)
The Guardian & Observer news team is considering publishing articles that will report that the Vote Leave campaign established the BeLeave campaign as an independent entity with the aim of using it to channel extra spending on the Brexit referendum.
We understand that this was illegal under UK electoral law as BeLeave had no control over the money nominally donated to them, and because the two ‘campaigns’ had been working together before BeLeave was formally established as an allegedly independent entity, and key individuals continued to work together, coordinating their plans even after the separation.
We also understand that when an investigation began into the donation from Vote Leave to BeLeave, key individuals attempted to destroy what might be considered to be evidence of coordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave.
We have the following understanding of the underlying factual situation, which we would propose to reflect in any article that may be published.
1. Members of BeLeave worked out of Vote Leave offices and with their guidance and support before they were an independent campaign. They continued to work out of the Vote Leave offices after they formally became independent.
2. Many of their activities were coordinated by or discussed with Vote Leave. This included messaging and documents stored on the shared ‘BeLeave’ drive.
3. Vote Leave set up this drive to co-ordinate BeLeave’s activities with Vote Leave. The settings of the BeLeave drive sent automatic notifications of changes to members of VoteLeave, but not to BeLeave staff.
4. Vote Leave members were part of a closed BeLeave Facebook group.
5. The staff of BeLeave were volunteers, but all expenses were apparently paid for by Vote Leave.
6. BeLeave website was coordinated and apparently paid for by XXX.
7. Vote Leave directors suggested to BeLeave volunteers they would receive a donation to spend on their own advertisements and projects if they set up their own campaign. We have been told you were the architect of this plan.
8. We understand that you arranged a donation of £625,000 from Vote Leave (where you worked as a campaign director) and a further £50,000 from XXX to the group BeLeave.
9. A volunteer has described in detail the relationship with Vote Leave. They said: “BeLeave was literally set up by Vote Leave’s lawyers. This was cheating on a grand scale.”
10. Vote Leave lawyers drew up the legal documents that formally made BeLeave a separate company and campaign. This was at your direction.
11. The Vote Leave legal director told members of BeLeave to set up a bank account. However no money was ever deposited in it and that they never had even nominal control of money. Again, this was at your direction.
12. The money never went to BeLeave’s account. Instead it was passed straight to a Canadian company called Aggregate IQ (AIQ) for spending purposes decided by Vote Leave. This was at your direction.
13. The volunteer claims BeLeave had no control of expenditure, or authority to spend even very small sums. Ultimately, you, as campaign director for Vote Leave directed this.
14. The BeLeave team were not warned of potential implications or told to take legal advice. This was at your direction.
15. The legal documents and formalities establishing the separate campaign were handled by the Vote Leave head of compliance.
16. AIQ directors and employees were in the same building as Vote Leave and BeLeave in London. In some cases at desks a few metres away from each other. This was at your direction.
17. When the connection between the two campaigns came under scrutiny, a director of Vote Leave wrote the press response for BeLeave.
18. On March 17 2018 – almost two weeks after the Information Commissioner’s Office announced an inquiry into how personal data was used during the referendum campaign and shortly after the Electoral Commission announced irt was looking again into the donation – references to you were deleted from files on the shared Vote Leave and BeLeave drive by [XXX I have deleted name as this is factually wrong and libellous. The date 2018 is presumably a typo].
19. DUP, Veterans for Britain also used the services of AIQ. It is understood you directed them to do so.
If you have any comments on any of the above, please let us know. In addition we’d like to ask you the following questions:
20. References to not just yourself but also XXX and XXX [I’ve deleted others names as this is wrong and libellous] were deleted from the shared drive. Did you have prior knowledge of this? When did you learn about it? Did you direct XXX to do so?
21. Who introduced Vote Leave to Aggregate IQ?
22. What due diligence did Vote Leave do prior to the selection of AIQ.
23. What were the deciding factors behind Vote Leaves choice of AIQ?
24. You said previously that XXX did your data modelling, but returns show only invoices for “polling analysis services” and “advertising”. No split spending is declared for any expenditure before the regulated period. Further, directors of Vote Leave made reference to having signed up “a group of West Coast American academics to do data”. Can you explain further?
25. Do you have any further comment to make on your claim previously that you received written notice from the Electoral Commission giving you permission to make this donation? [Ignoring the fact that what I said was proved right in Court.]
If you dispute any of the information or above or have any points to make about these and other matters, please let me know.
We would be grateful if you could respond by 4pm on 21 March.
EMAIL FROM ELECTORAL COMMISSION TO VOTE LEAVE REVEALED IN COURT, 1 OF THE DOCS DISPROVING CC/JOLYON ACCUSATIONS
From: XXX <XXX@electoralcommission.org.uk>
Date: Fri, May 20, 2016 at 3:40 PM
Subject: RE: Some questions in relation to campaign expenditure
To: XXX [VOTE LEAVE]
Thanks for your email and apologies for the delay in our response.
Before addressing your specific queries, I thought it would be helpful to set out the Commission’s general position on apportioning overheads in relation to referendum spending.
Campaigners are only required to report a relevant proportion of overheads that are incurred in respect of the list of referendum campaign activities set out in in our guidance (p. 6) and which are summarised from the list of regulated matters in schedule 13 of PPERA. With regards to general overheads and running costs, we consider that only an appropriate proportion of the rental costs of an office (to the extent that the space is being used to plan, coordinate or carry out referendum activities), electricity and telephone/internet costs are sufficiently connected with spending on these listed referendum activities to count against the spending limit and require reporting.
When considering your overheads and running costs, you should make a reasonable assessment based on the facts in each particular case as to whether they have been incurred in respect of these referendum activities. It is appropriate for campaigners to split the costs of overheads where they have been used both before and during the regulated period, or where the overhead covers both referendum and non-referendum specific activities. You are not required to report the costs of overheads that are incidental to referendum activities.
Turning to your specific questions:
- As described above, the costs of premises and equipment – where they have been incurred in respect of regulated referendum campaign activities – will constitute referendum spending. You should make an honest assessment of the amount you have spent based on the facts. Your assessment should consider the extent to which the premises and equipment have been used in respect of referendum campaign activities during the regulated period. For audit purposes, we recommend that you keep a record of how you made your Assessment.
- If you are supplying material to other campaigners without having a co-ordinated plan or agreement then the material is likely to be a donation from you to the other campaigner. If the donation is over £500 it will reportable by the other campaigner. You would not need to report the cost of the material in your spending return unless you use the material yourself.
- Only costs that are incurred in respect of referendum activities will count against your spending limit and require reporting after the referendum. We agree that in most cases the costs you refer to as being related to ‘governance’ (such as HR support for your staff, accountancy fees and legal advice in respect of compliance with PPERA) will not constitute referendum expenditure as they are not being incurred in respect of regulated referendum activities.
- If the events are intended to, or are otherwise in connection with, promoting or bringing about a particular outcome in the referendum then the full cost of the event would be reportable.
- When you are uploading invoices and receipts to PEF Online you can only upload PDFs.
I hope the above is helpful to you. If you do have any further questions, please let me know.
Party and Election Finance
The Electoral Commission
3 Bunhill Row
London EC1Y 8YZ