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Sun 29 March 2020
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A former MP and member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee – which investigated disinformation and fake news during the 2016 EU Referendum – calls on the Cabinet Office Minister to reveal what he knew about electoral wrongdoing.

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Reports indicate that the Government initially dismissed calls from the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, to postpone May’s local government elections.

In a letter sent earlier this week to Chloe Smith, Minister at the Cabinet Office, the Commission’s Chief Executive Bob Posner made the case that the Coronavirus crisis will result in holding the elections difficult. Although the Government has today announced that the local elections, including the election of the Mayor of London, will be postponed for a year, its initial dismissal of the watchdog’s advice is just the latest example of being willing to ignore the Commission.

For months now, the Government has ignored calls from the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office to urgently address issues relating to digital campaigning. The result was that widely accepted, small steps such as imprints on digital campaigning materials were not introduced for the 2019 General Election.

If, in the midst of a public health crisis, we are to have trust in the Government and its motives, why is it rejecting advice from independent public bodies?

Perhaps there is a clue in Bob Posner’s letter. For copied in is none other than the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. Considering Gove is Chloe Smith’s boss at the Cabinet Office, this could be dismissed as insignificant. But that may well be wrong.

Before the 2019 General Election, when I was still the Labour MP for Wrexham, I wrote to Gove asking him to make full disclosure of his knowledge of illegal payments made by the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum (he had been the campaign committee’s co-convenor). I did so because, as I pointed out, he was responsible for transparency in elections. After some time, I received a response from him saying that “Oliver Dowden (then Minister of State at the Cabinet Office) is the Minister responsible for data protection and elections… your enquiry does not relate to my ministerial portfolio”.

This was contradicted by the Cabinet Office’s website at the time, which I raised with Gove in Parliament – leading to an immediate change to the website. I wrote to the Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office, John Manzoni, about this in September 2019. In response, Manzoni told me that “these portfolios were not reflected accurately on the Cabinet Office’s gov.uk website… instead reflecting the portfolio of the previous Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who also held the role of Minister for the Cabinet Office”.

Gove argued, ingeniously, that he was not in charge of his own department and therefore was not responsible for the Electoral Commission, which had fined Vote Leave over electoral wrongdoing during the referendum – a campaign of which Gove was the co-convenor.


Conflicts

Following this curious episode, the position has now changed and Michael Gove is, indeed, responsible in Government for the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office – which is why he was copied into the letter on the local government elections by its Chief Executive.

The Cabinet Office’s website also now helpfully makes clear that Gove “was also appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office on 13 February 2020”. 

In these circumstances, he is therefore obliged – under Paragraph 7.1 of the Ministerial Code – to ensure “that no conflict arises between (his) public duties and private interests, financial or otherwise”. 

Gove’s present role provides that he is responsible for “oversight of all Cabinet Office policies” which includes the Government’s relationship with the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office. Given that Gove has ‘history’ with the Electoral Commission, that there are current Vote Leave issues being investigated by the Metropolitan Police at the request of the Electoral Commission, and that the Information Commissioner’s Office is considering the issue of data-sharing by Vote Leave, Gove needs to come clean and tell us, finally, when he found out about the electoral wrongdoing by Vote Leave and who told him.

This is particularly important because of Gove’s relationship with a company called Aggregate IQ, which was at the heart of the Vote Leave campaign. Immediately following the referendum result and the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister, Gove instructed Aggregate IQ – which dealt with data for Vote Leave – to set up a Conservative Party leadership campaign website for him. Did Gove know about illegal payments made by Vote Leave, through Aggregate IQ, when he chose to ask Aggregate IQ to build a website for him?

Some may say that this is yesterday’s story, but until Michael Gove – the person with whom the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office must now engage with in Government – tells us the full story of what he knew about Vote Leave’s electoral wrongdoing, it will keep coming up.

We need to know that, when the Government makes decisions relating to elections, it is doing so for the right reasons – and not because of the past dealings of a minister in a personal capacity.


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