Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and other leading Vote Leave figures failed to turn up to a debate on how their unlawful campaigning during the Brexit referendum affected the country and whether it should force the government to rescind Article 50.
The debate was held after an official petition on the parliament website reached 200,000 signatures, with the issue raised by Labour MP for Cambridge Daniel Zeichner.
He launched a forceful attack, saying: “I cannot help noting that the alleged point of the entire campaign was to bring control back to this Parliament—a Parliament it now treats with contempt and disdain. The sheer hypocrisy, as well as the appalling boorishness, that the campaign has exhibited takes the breath away. How dare it wave the Union Jack when it so disrespects basic British values? Millions and millions of people who voted to leave will also have been horrified by its behaviour. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) put it succinctly when asking an urgent question on this matter in July: ‘Who do these people think they are? They think they are above the law.'”
In a well-informed debate, MPs from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP weighed in with questions about the illegal actions of Vote Leave, BeLeave, and Leave.EU – all of which have been fined by the Electoral Commission, with various issues also referred to the police for possible criminal prosecution.
Each MP made the case that “laws were broken” by the leave campaigns, but the punishment available to the Electoral Commission is inadequate, the same view made clear by the commission themselves. Martyn Day, SNP MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, echoed the views of many of those present and likely many of the petition signatories, saying: “If we are to have confidence in the integrity, and outcome, of referendums and elections, transparency in the process is essential. It is particularly disappointing that Vote Leave displayed an arrogant and unco-operative stance, forcing the Electoral Commission to use its legal powers to compel it to provide evidence. It was bad enough that that attitude demonstrated that Vote Leave thought it was above the law, but that was compounded by the paltry level of fines imposed, totalling £61,000 against a multi-million pound campaign, which can be dismissed as the cost of doing business—almost with impunity.”
Representing the government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Chris Heaton-Harris did not defend the illegal activity of Vote Leave, but instead tried to equate their behaviour that has been referred to the police, to that of the Liberal Democrats or Open Britain, who made some minor errors in their returns. He went on to make clear the government had no plans to revisit Article 50, no matter the illegal actions of those that had pushed so hard for it.
Concluding the debate, Zeichner made clear his disappointment that the no-one form Vote Leave was present in teh chamber to defend their actions or explain why they believed they should be able to break the law and then still have the audacity to call on those that complain to “respect the result”. He said: “I expected a rank of Vote Leave supporters on the Government Benches to explain and defend their actions. I quite understand why they are not present: their actions were indefensible. What a pity that they are not here to defend themselves.”