08:12, June 13 212 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-13 08:12:02
How Vote Leave’s lies could still come back to haunt them

It is one of the great narrative devices of stage and screen: the big lie or deception, kept up for ages, which finally comes crashing down with terrible consequences. They talk about this sort of thing in the Old Testament: “Be sure your sin will find you out.” And as if life hasn’t been complicated enough recently, the already uncertain Brexit process may be about to receive another jolt in the tradition of one of those great cinematic or theatrical unmaskings.

Almost a year on from the EU referendum a group of lawyers and an academic expert in electoral law are running up against a deadline to try to prove that last year’s vote was indeed based on some big lies and deceptions. They are building a case to set before a magistrate in London, in a private prosecution, that certain figures in the Vote Leave campaign deliberately and knowingly misled voters, in breach of electoral law. This group, which operates under the name Restoring Integrity to Our Democracy, has just a few days left to submit its case. Once a year has passed after the 23 June 2016 referendum date no such prosecution can be brought.

Bob Watt, until recently a professor in electoral law at the University of Buckingham, is a self-confessed “anorak” on these matters, but he maintains he is no diehard remainer. “Neither side was particularly scrupulous about telling the truth,” he says. But the leave campaign went much further.

We remember the statement that £350m extra a week could be found to fund the NHS if only we broke free from the EU. We remember the declaration that Turkey – “population 75 million” – was about to join the EU, and that the UK had no control over its borders while it remained a member of the EU. Lies, all lies. Prof Watt and his colleagues are assembling the evidence to show that these lies were told consciously.

The test in law is not too severe. It dates back to 1854, to the publication of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act. But crucially a court of appeal amendment in 2006 established that simply “trying to interfere” with the result of an election with dishonest material constitutes an offence.

Former leave campaigners, even those who have, perhaps unwisely, gone on the record to admit how happy they were to conjure up deliberately misleading statements, need not panic. In the event of a conviction the penalty would be unlikely to amount to more than a few dozen hours of community service, as has been the case the past. What is really at stake here is the principle. Liars should not prosper. We should not be relaxed about casual immorality. “My main interest is electoral integrity,” Prof Watt says. “Referendums ought to be fought fairly. People shouldn’t get away with lying to promote their view.” Our electoral law is old, vague and inadequate. Whereas in Sweden, Prof Watt says, it is clear and simple to use, unlike in the UK. Europe has much to teach us.

Because this is a matter of public interest, the Restoring Integrity group believes that the director of public prosecutions may overturn her earlier decision, from December last year, not to pursue this case, based as it was on a misunderstanding (Prof Watt believes) of the 2006 court of appeal amendment. He expects a London magistrate to refer the matter on to the DPP, and that the case will ultimately be heard in a crown court. Meanwhile, a crowdfunding effort is under way to pay for the legal work required to prepare the case.

This could all be dismissed as a futile, obsessive pursuit. Who cares if a few leave campaigners have to whitewash walls and pick up rubbish for a few weeks? But of course there is something much bigger at stake. The health of our society depends on there being effective sanctions for dishonest conduct. And any government without a functioning moral compass is doomed.

Michael Heseltine said on Sunday that Brexit was “the cancer gnawing away at the heart of the Conservative party”. We have a prime minister living on borrowed time, who campaigned last year to remain, then championed a hard Brexit, who seemed bewildered that voters might find her a less than convincing figure when it came to casting a vote last Thursday. Brexit runs through the heart of this unstable, minority government. It may now be softened or diluted a little. But in due course only a clean, fair second referendum can help resolve this situation.

Last year’s referendum vote was an unsafe conviction, a miscarriage of justice, based as it was on false information. It has destabilised our polity, with unpleasant consequences. The rest of Europe looks on, bemused, irritated, but ready to negotiate, while the UK government cannot publish a Queen’s speech on time and may not have a delegation ready to begin negotiations on our exit next Monday.

Not even an extra £350m a week would be enough money to clear up this mess. But a clean-up has to start sometime. That is why Bob Watt and colleagues are pursuing this case. The good professor simply wants us to take back control.