BeLeave was founded by Darren Grimes, a then 23-year-old fashion student from County Durham, a Liberal Democrat member with a talent for graphic design and social media marketing. The BeLeave logo (not dissimilar to the Vote Leave logo) can be found on Vote Leave’s own website, where BeLeave is listed as an “outreach group”.
According to Commission guidelines,
“When you work together in a joint campaign with a designated lead campaigner all the spending counts towards the lead campaign group’s spending limit.”
It is however, specified that “Making donations to another campaigner is not working together”. However, if they are “spending money as part of a coordinated plan or arrangement”, then it’s “working together”.
BeLeave reportedly worked out of Vote Leave headquarters and there are suggestions that their website was co-ordinated and paid for by the Vote Leave head of outreach Cleo Watson. Buzzfeed reported that one Vote Leave campaigner they spoke to said Grimes was often seen at the Vote Leave office.
Grimes was well known at Vote Leave’s campaign HQ – “Everyone knew who Darren was,” Sanni says. “Everybody congratulated us and knew what role we’d played. He knew exactly how important we’d been. He’s a close friend of Dom Cummings. Of course he knew. Boris Johnson knew. Everybody knew.” Vote Leave’s director and other employees sat at desks near his own in the campaign HQ
BeLeave attempted to leverage a different type of digital campaign than the other pro-Brexit groups. They wanted to target voters who would be expected to vote remain, younger more progressive voters, by focusing on the failings of the EU to be forward thinking or progressive. The group’s treasurer turned whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, commented that,
“Vote Leave understood that they couldn’t win the referendum if they specifically targeted angry Ukippers. They knew that they needed to target young liberals …They needed to target Green party members that didn’t like the EU’s environmental laws, or liberal Eurosceptics like me that did hold fiscally conservative values but were socially liberal and understood the EU didn’t support everyone, that it only benefited Europeans.”
Some of their online campaigns focused on
- why holders of EU passports could come freely to the UK while Commonwealth citizens could not
- Attacking the EU for policies it claimed “have driven African farmers into poverty”,
- How EU policies made it impossible for Britain to abolish the “tampon tax”.
- A fourth warned that EU penalties could make Netflix streaming more expensive.
They were much more successful with their digital campaign than the fear-mongering rhetoric online spread by other pro-Brexit groups. Their Facebook posts were engaging more people – to share, comment or like – than most paid advertisements by political campaigns. One video reached 41,000 people in one day without any paid promotion. “With funding, we could triple this amount,” they wrote in a pitch for some extra funding from Vote Leave.
When, in the final weeks, Vote Leave neared their spending limit of £7 million, senior directors suggested to BeLeave that, if they set up as a separate campaign, they would receive a donation for their own personal use. After initially expecting a donation in the 10s of thousands, they were told to set up a bank account to prepare for a donation of £625,000.
Vote Leave raised £9.2 million from members of the public in the entire five-month regulated campaign period. In a blog after the campaign, Cummings wrote that Vote Leave had begun to raise far more money than it could legally spend in the last few weeks of the campaign. Cummings wrote that Vote Leave had donated 5% of its funds to other campaign groups, after this was “suddenly allowed in the last few weeks of the campaign by the Electoral Commission”.
He initially claimed that the organisation got a letter from the Electoral Commission, signing off on these donations. But Carole Cadwalladr revealed in the Observer that after a 5-month long battle with numerous FOI requests, it was discovered that the letter did not exist. The Commission (finally) told her “we can’t find any record of any exchange with us on the subject of donations between them from that period”.
Vote Leave drew up the legal documents required to allow BeLeave to create a bank account so that it could accept donations of its own. Vote Leave’s legal director said in an email to Grimes in May, with Watson copied in – “Following our discussion I attach a typed-up first draft of the constitution,”
But the donation never arrived in the bank account, it was sent directly to AggregateIQ in their name without ever passing to BeLeave. It was made clear to Sanni by Grimes that they wouldn’t have control over how the money was spent. BeLeave were not advised of the risks of such a move.
Grimes told a different story to Sanni, claiming that their spending “was done in isolation of Vote Leave Ltd … we didn’t discuss with Vote Leave how we would spend the money apart from telling them that it was for our digital campaign and that is why we asked for the money to be paid directly to the company were working with AggregateIQ”.
Once the Electoral Commission began looking into the donation, Grimes said that he was impressed by the AggregateIQ website, but cached data shows that AIQ did not have a website at the time. AIQ claims to have had a website since 2013.
Grimes also received £50,000 from an individual Vote Leave donor in the final 10 days of the referendum. The donor was Anthony Clarke and approached Grimes directly to offer the money (the following day he donated £40,000 to Vote Leave). Grimes told Buzzfeed,
“[He was a] donor that got in contact with us, that we checked against the electoral roll to ensure was permissible – he was… We received donations in a standard legal way and have reported them according to the rules.”
The timing of the donations meant they did not have to be declared until after the result was known, thus could not be scrutinised before the vote. The total of £675,315.18 given to Grimes via four donations spread over eight days took him dangerously close to the £700,000 limit any registered individual was legally allowed to spend in the campaign.
Sanni told Channel 4 that everything that he and Grimes did was run past Stephen Parkinson, that they were essentially reporting to him. Then after the campaign, Sanni alleges that Grimes was being coached by Vote Leave staff members, being told what to say and what not to say. They were specific about exactly what to say if quizzed about AggregateIQ – that it was a donation in kind for services used by BeLeave.
Parkinson claimed that he and Sanni had an 18-month personal relationship, ending in September 2017. That he only offered advice to Sanni in a personal capacity and that he apologised if the lines had become blurred.
So we now know that money was funnelled through the DUP to AggregateIQ and Soopa Doopa to be used on behalf of Vote Leave. We can now, with a fair degree of certainty, infer that this has taken place through BeLeave as well as part of an effort to subvert spending caps. The issue here is that the EC and the ICO are fairly powerless aside from handing out minor fines – for real justice, we need a criminal investigation or a full parliamentary inquiry.
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