Darren against Remain’s Goliath

Abused as a criminal and fined £20,000 by the regulator, a hero of Brexit has been vindicated

On the morning of 18 July, Darren Grimes was sitting in the Central London County Court waiting for Judge Marc Dight to decide his fate. A year earlier, almost to the day, he had been fined £20,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaching the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. According to the regulator, he had coordinated with Vote Leave to help Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s campaign organisation get around statutory spending limits in the EU referendum. Darren appealed and now, after a long, torturous process, the judge was about to deliver his verdict.

The 26-year-old Brexiteer glanced nervously at the lawyers he called “the men in grey suits” ranged against him. The Electoral Commission had turned up mob-handed: in addition to five solicitors from the huge international law firm Fieldfisher, it had brought three barristers including Sir James Eadie QC, who serves as First Treasury Council, making him the government’s most senior advocate and one of the highest-paid QCs in the country. The expense of this A-team didn’t trouble the regulator: its legal bills were being picked up by the taxpayer. Fieldfisher submitted papers to the court estimating the cost of the appeal at £436,000 + VAT.

The judge threw out the central plank of the Electoral Commission case: that Darren and Vote Leave acted ‘in concert’ in the 2016 referendum

Darren was represented by four lawyers after he’d managed to raise £94,500 through a crowd-funder, mainly in the form of small donations from thousands of wellwishers. But after a year of legal wrangling, that pot was about to run dry. Alongside him were colleagues from the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he works as digital manager, and Victoria Hewson, who volunteers with Lawyers For Britain, a pro-Brexit lobby group. He’d also asked Father Marcus Walker, the rector of Great St Bartholomew’s in the Barbican, to come along. Amid all the unpleasantness of the last three years, in which Darren has seen his name dragged through the mud by pro-Remain journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr, he has found great comfort in the Anglican church. Undeed, Fr Walker had confirmed him the previous October.

“A lot of people find God in times of darkness, but for Darren this was particularly important,” says Fr Walker. “St Bart’s is a very traditional church and that provided Darren with an anchor to the past, but also a structure and a depth at a time of great confusion.” Darren echoes this sentiment: “For a long time I felt totally lost as a result of this process, not knowing how it was going to end up. Being confirmed gave me a grounding, a root, and I actually felt I could stand still again.”

One person conspicuous by her absence was Darren’s mother, Jackie. Based in County Durham, she raised him and his two brothers by herself and managed to save enough money — she translates for deaf children — to buy her council house. When the Commission decided Darren was guilty of electoral malpractice, Jackie was so convinced of his innocence she offered to sell the house to pay for his appeal.

“She bought that house under right-to-buy and that policy is more responsible for me being a conservative than anything else,” says Darren. “My mother’s entire attitude changed from that day forward. She had an asset to look after, something to pass on to her children. It gave her financial security she’d never had before. Her offering to sell it was a real low point for me in the whole ordeal. But I thought, ‘She’s right. I just can’t take this lying down. I’ve got to fight it.’ Paul Staines, the man who set up the Guido Fawkes website, encouraged me to launch a crowd-funder.” Jackie was too nervous to come to court. “It got to the point where I had to stop telling her things because she got so worried,” says Darren. She’d remained at home and he promised to call her as soon as the verdict was in.

Darren’s first foray into politics had been in 2015 when he worked for the Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb while still a fashion student at Brighton University. He ran the digital part of Lamb’s leadership campaign, operating his social media accounts. Even though Lamb lost, Darren enjoyed the experience. He was attracted by the party’s devolution policy and when it became clear that David Cameron intended to call a referendum, he decided to get involved.

“I couldn’t be in favour of devolution and stand by while more and more power is transferred to faceless bureaucrats in Brussels,” he says. “That’s what made me decide to support Leave. I realised there wouldn’t be anyone targeting younger voters, the sort of voters I’d been targeting through Norman’s campaign. So that’s where the idea for BeLeave came from.”

The exact origin of BeLeave is a matter of dispute. The regulator maintains it was essentially a “Potemkin” organisation created to enable Vote Leave to exceed its spending limits. The charge revolves around a donation of £625,000 that BeLeave received from Vote Leave in the last fortnight of the campaign, which was paid on to AggregateIQ, a digital technology company with links to Cambridge Analytica. AggregateIQ, which was also working for Vote Leave, spent the money on targeted Facebook ads. In his appeal, Darren maintained BeLeave was created by him in January 2016 with no input from Vote Leave.

It took a certain bloody-mindedness in the first half of 2016 to campaign for Brexit among the student population of Brighton, the only place in the United Kingdom with a Green Party MP. But Darren had discovered a core of resilience when he came out as a homosexual while still at school. “I was quite badly bullied for being gay at a rough comprehensive in the north-east,” he says. “So I wasn’t that worried about being called a ‘little Englander’ by a bunch of middle-class students.”

Darren’s campaign targeted young voters

A central plank of the Commission’s case against Darren and Vote Leave, which it also fined in 2018, is that they were acting “in concert” — which boils down to saying there was no meaningful distinction between the BeLeave and Vote Leave campaigns and he was doing the bidding of the larger organisation when he passed on the £625,000 to AggregateIQ. Again, Darren denied this, testifying he had little contact with the Vote Leave during the final stages of the campaign and was mainly working out of his student digs in Brighton.

In order for BeLeave to spend an amount of that size during the referendum, Darren was required to register the organisation with the Commission. But when he filled in the relevant form, he ticked the box saying he was registering as an “individual” and neglected to tick “unincorporated association”. In his witness statement, Darren said it was an innocent mistake — the form is unclear — and not intended to pull the wool over the regulator’s eyes. The Commission, meanwhile, claimed it proved he was engaged in some sinister plot. But to anyone unversed in the intricacies of electoral law, it isn’t clear what difference it made. Either Darren was in cahoots with Vote Leave or he was not.

Darren continued to maintain his innocence of the wild allegations of so-called “whistle-blowers”

One of the facts that weighs against the Electoral Commission is that Vote Leave sought the regulator’s advice about whether it could donate £625,000 to a third party without breaching statutory spending limits. It was told, unequivocally, that it could. Indeed, the Commission only decided to fine Darren and Vote Leave two years later, when the legality of this advice was challenged in the High Court by the anti-Brexit activist Jolyon Maugham QC. The Commission’s imposition of a £20,000 fine — the maximum allowed — was particularly suspect, given that it had already investigated the case twice and on both occasions decided there was insufficient evidence to conclude they had been acting “in concert”.

In light of this, it looks as if the regulator’s decision to launch a third investigation, this time reaching the opposite conclusion, was a way of covering its back in case the High Court found against it. When that duly happened in September 2018, the Commission was quick to point out that it had already recognised the error of its ways and imposed swingeing fines on Darren and Vote Leave. In fact, it had gone further than this and referred the matter to the Metropolitan Police, seemingly in the hope Darren, then 24, would end up in prison.

 

Looking back at the way Darren Grimes has been treated, it’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that the anti-Brexit activists who have pursued Vote Leave through the courts hoped he might become a witness for the prosecution. They have persuaded themselves that all the Brexit campaign organisations, from Leave EU to Veterans for Britain, were involved in a vast right-wing conspiracy that included Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, the Mercer family, Vladimir Putin and billionaire hedge-fund owners hoping to profit from the chaos of no deal.

“Carole Cadwalladr would call me all the time,” says Darren. “She would scream down the phone, ‘Darren, Darren, you need to talk to me.’ I’d say, ‘I’m going into a meeting now Carole, I can’t talk to you.’ It was as though her life depended on talking to me. It was as though she was obsessed with this story, a story that’s been shown to be full of holes.”

The pressure mounted when three ‘whistleblowers’ came forward. One claimed to be “director of research” at Cambridge Analytica, though the company said he was a part-time intern. The other two had vague connections to Vote Leave; one worked for the campaign for a few weeks, but left before the referendum started. The other claimed to have had his own desk at Vote Leave’s London headquarters, albeit as a volunteer, but no one can recall seeing him at the office. In spite of doubts about their “insider” status, these “whistleblowers” were interviewed by the Guardian and Channel 4 News, as well as the Electoral Commission.

Would Darren become the fourth Deep Throat? He found himself particularly downhearted when BBC Radio Four decided to stop inviting him to review the papers on Broadcasting House, its Sunday morning show. “The producer called and said, ‘I’m really sorry, but because you’re under investigation we can’t have you on any more.’ That was a low point because I was really proud of doing that. To be told I was too toxic for the BBC was a blow.” Another bad moment was when he was verbally abused by a complete stranger in a pub next to the House of Commons. “I was at the Red Lion having a drink with a friend and this girl walked over and started screaming at me, ‘Criminal, you’re a criminal. We’ve got you to thank all this for.’ Turned out she worked for Rory Stewart.”

But in spite of being ostracised in this way, Darren did not turn on his former comrades. On the contrary, he continued to maintain his innocence of the increasingly wild allegations being made by Cadwalladr and the so-called whisteblowers. If there was any wrongdoing in the referendum campaign, he believed, it was on the Remain side. The Commission did eventually fine two of the pro-Remain campaign organisations for colluding with each other, though the regulator seemed less enthusiastic about investigating them. As far as Darren was concerned, Remain seemed to have the entire Establishment on its side: the prime minister, the civil service, the CBI, Goldman Sachs, the IMF, the EU and the president of the United States. The people campaigning for Brexit were, for the most part, ordinary folks like him — a working-class student from the north-east who believed the British people should be masters of their own destiny.

On the night of the referendum vote, Darren waited to go on air in the green room of BBC Studios in White City. He was anxious, not just because the polls were predicting Leave would lose but because he might be late for his shift at Marks & Spencer the following morning. “They kept pushing back my slot,” he says. “I was only 22 and to me, someone from a family that isn’t politically aware and has never been part of ‘the bubble’, it was a real experience. I hadn’t slept for two days. I’d been handing out leaflets and I was absolutely knackered. I went on air with Emily Maitlis at about 4am and at that point it was becoming clear that Leave was on track to win. After I came off air, I called my mam and said, ‘We’ve won, we’ve won’. She said, ‘Ah pet that’s fantastic, have we really?’ I said, ‘You don’t sound very excited?’ She said, ‘Well don’t get too excited yourself because they’ll never let it happen.’ She’s a cynic, but she was right.”

 

Judge Dight spent two hours delivering his verdict and it was some time before Darren was able to work out which side he was coming down on. But eventually the penny dropped. “About two hours in, he started saying, ‘Even if the Commission had found x, I would still disagree with this,’ and he started trashing their entire argument. Their form was too complex, they’d misinterpreted the law — you name it, he ruled against them. It was a complete exoneration.

“Honestly, I felt like I’d been in there for days, it was just the most excruciating experience, so after he said this, after I realised he was ruling in my favour, I burst into tears. And then everyone around me started getting emotional as well. I looked over at the other side and I could see their faces were ashen white. Honestly, they looked as though they were about to be sick. My barrister turned round and said, ‘You’ve won, you’ve won,’ and shook my hand.”

Victoria Hewson, who was sitting next to Darren, says the relief among his friends and supporters in court that day was palpable. “I’m a lawyer by profession so I had perhaps a little more arm’s-length understanding of what was going on,” she says. “We all felt that he had a very strong case but you never know which way the judge is going to go. The fear was the judge would be reluctant to give a firm decision one way or the other, maybe split the difference, reduce the fine, give Darren a slap on the wrist. But in the end, he completely demolished the Electoral Commission. In the course of the judgment it gradually became clear that he’d accepted everything Darren’s legal team had argued.”

When Darren recovered his composure, he remembered his promise to his mother. “I was in the queue at Asda when he called,” says Jackie. “When he told me what had happened I could feel myself filling up and I was like, ‘He’s won, he’s won.’ The cashier started looking at me and I said, ‘Our Darren’s won. He’s beaten them.’” She was so overcome, she ended up leaving her shopping in Asda and had to go back later to pick it up.

The Electoral Commission announced in August that it won’t be appealing against Judge Dight’s verdict, but this is isn’t quite the end of the ordeal. The Metropolitan Police are still investigating Darren, though it seems unlikely that the Crown Prosecution Service will decide to bring a criminal case given that the Central London County Court has cleared him of any wrongdoing.

There aren’t many heroes in politics — which nearly always involves compromise and betrayal — but Darren Grimes comes close. A young gay man from County Durham with no money, no profession, and no friends in high places decided to take on the might of the British Establishment and, against all the odds, he won.

He had the book thrown at him by some of the most powerful people in the land and yet, miraculously, he’s still standing, stronger than before, more determined than ever to fight for what he believes in.

David Cameron warned that the great danger of holding a referendum on EU membership is that “you could unleash demons of which ye know not”. But it also produced some unlikely champions — ordinary people of extraordinary character — and Darren Grimes is one of them.

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