Chris Bowers – Watch for the devil in the technocratic detail

Isn’t it odd how the most unprepossessing of stories can sometimes carry potentially great significance! Is it possible this week’s announcement that the Electoral Commission is investigating whether Vote Leave breached its spending allowance in the 2016 EU referendum might carry between its lines the potential to change the whole culture around Brexit? I do wonder.

I’ve just completed a study on whether current election spending rules are fit for purpose, and one of the crucial elements is whether the punishment for breaking those rules fits the crime. I mean, if you break the rules in an election and gain an unfair advantage, surely you shouldn’t be allowed to keep the prize, should you?

So what happens when, in a nationwide vote designed to be fair by both sides having spending limits, you find later that one side has overspent? I should stress that there’s no proof as yet that Vote Leave did overspend; there’s just sufficient indication that it might have done for the Electoral Commission to investigate. But what happens if the Commission judges that Vote Leave did overspend?

At face value, the answer to that is simple: it fines the Leave campaign £20,000, the maximum it’s allowed to fine any party or campaign for any single offence. And if you’ve stumped up £7 million to try and get Britain out of the EU, I’m sure there’s someone in your camp who’ll fork out 20 grand for the fine as part of the peripheral costs of winning the referendum.

But that’s just the technocratic detail. What happens to the public confidence in the referendum result? If a game has been played with one side subsequently found to be cheating, surely the result should be annulled? When Ben Johnson won the Olympic 100 metres and was then found to be on illegal drugs, he was stripped of his gold medal. When the Labour MP Phil Woolas breached election spending rules in 2010, his election result was annulled and there had to be a by-election.

The Electoral Commission isn’t going to order a re-run of the 2016 referendum if it finds Vote Leave to have breached its spending limit.But if by the time it makes its judgement the implications of Brexit are becoming alarmingly clear and public opinion is reflecting a ‘second thoughts’ culture, then a finding from the Commission – if it comes – could push public opinion a big step closer to accepting a referendum on whatever Brexit deal Theresa May’s government negotiates.

Watch this space.

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