Whistleblower's testimony raises hopes of Brexit 'do-over'
But allegations of overspending likely not enough to revisit contentious vote, experts say
Allegations that pro-Leave campaigners cheated on election spending rules during Britain's 2016 referendum on European Union membership have raised hopes among Remain supporters who would like a "do-over."
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the Canadian at the heart of the Facebook privacy scandal, told a U.K. Parliamentary committee on Tuesday he is convinced pro-Brexit groups banded together to circumvent spending rules ahead of the vote, potentially giving the official Leave campaign the upper hand.
"I think it is completely reasonable to say there could have been a different outcome in the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating," said Wylie, testifying in the wake of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, which began with his allegations that the company he co-founded improperly harvested details of 50 million Facebook users and used the material in U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign.
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Wylie said he "absolutely" believed a British Columbia-based marketing and software company, AggregateIQ (AIQ), had drawn on databases at Cambridge Analytica for its work on the Brexit referendum.
The data would be used to influence what certain voters saw on social media, Wylie said. His understanding, he told the committee, was that AIQ was targeting people who were seen as key to swaying the result of the referendum.
No legal avenue
But legal experts say even if the allegations were proven to be true, there would be no legal avenue for a referendum re-run.
"If they are found to have overspent and that's a matter of fact [that person could] be fined up to 20,000 British pounds," under the rules of the British Electoral Commision, according to Bob Watt, an expert in British electoral law.
And if someone were suspected of having knowingly falsified accounts or of making a false declaration of expenditure, a criminal investigation could be initiated by police.
Watt believes if there is any proven wrongdoing by Vote Leave it could give those campaigning for another referendum, or at least a Parliamentary vote on any final negotiated Brexit agreement, some traction in the court of public opinion.
"I think that the touchstone of a democracy is a free and fair election or referendum and the sort of smell of fish is beginning to get a little overpowering. From both a legal and a political point of view," he said.
The CEO of Best for Britain — a group "fighting to keep the U.K. open to EU membership" — says her group has written a letter to the British Prime Minister Theresa May asking for clarification on what pro-Leave members of her cabinet did or didn't know.
Eloise Todd says it asks "what she'll do to investigate whether [Foreign Secretary] Boris Johnson knew of this alleged over-spend, whether Environment Minister Michael Gove knew of this alleged overspend and of the potentially illegal co-ordination between these groups."
Johnson, who was a leading figure in the Leave campaign, has already dismissed allegations that Vote Leave cheated on spending limits as "ludicrous." Some Brexit supporters have accused those on the Remain side who are calling for further investigation of being sore losers.
Todd insists there it is nothing partisan about the debate.
"It's about the strength of our democracy in the U.K. and about whether the rules are implemented and policed properly around the referendum in particular."
"It was such a hot-button issue. The margin was so tight and it was one of the first examples of the really widespread use of social media campaigning in our country."
An emergency debate on the subject in the British Parliament on Tuesday drew only a handful of MPs; with the governing Conservatives particularly absent.
With files from CBC's Carolyn Ryan and The Associated Press