Revealed: The inconsistent and inaccurate claims of the Brexit ‘whistleblower’

Revealed: The inconsistent and inaccurate claims of the Brexit ‘whistleblower’

The past few days have seen yet another re-airing of 21-month old allegations against Vote Leave after a ‘whistleblower’, Shahmir Sanni, gave interviews to Channel Four News and The Observer, in which he claimed that Vote Leave had broken electoral spending rules by collaborating with the BeLeave campaign, of which he was a part – along with Darren Grimes, now an employee of BrexitCentral.

These claims are not new. The Electoral Commission had already conducted two investigations into the claims and found no evidence of any wrongdoing, before opening a third investigation into the same claims last year. This was despite the Commission failing to present any new evidence to justify why it was starting a third investigation into the same claims it had already investigated and dismissed twice.

Instead, the Commission ostensibly made its decision to open a new investigation solely as a result of political and legal pressure from anti-Brexit campaigner Jolyon Maugham QC.

And on BBC’s Daily Politics this Monday, Shahmir Sanni admitted that he did not have evidence either to show that Vote Leave told BeLeave – as he claims – to spend the donation in a certain way:

In a series of different interviews over the last few days, Sanni’s claims about Vote Leave and BeLeave have been shown up to be both inaccurate and inconsistent with each other. He has changed his story on many key details, such as the setting up of BeLeave and how he became involved in the campaign, while contradicting himself on numerous other occasions.

What did Sanni claim about the origins of BeLeave?

Sanni initially claimed that BeLeave was an outreach group for Vote Leave, set up by Vote Leave, as he said on The World This Weekend (7:45) on 24th March and then on Good Morning Britain (1:09:56) on Monday 26th March. But minutes later on the same programme (1:14:58), he confirmed to the interviewer that it was Darren Grimes who had in fact set up BeLeave.

And his initial account was also contradicted by the Observer journalist who interviewed Sanni, Carole Cadwalladr, who wrote that “BeLeave had been set up… by another volunteer, 23-year-old fashion student Darren Grimes”. (Grimes was in fact 22 at the time). Cadwalladr then goes on to say: “When Sanni joined the BeLeave team, it had already become extraordinarily successful in appealing to liberal and leftwing supporters on Facebook and other social media, using videos and other messaging that often appeared to be the exact opposite of the largest Vote Leave and LeaveEU campaigns.”

Sanni himself then again made the claim that Vote Leave set up BeLeave at a Byline Media event on 26th March. But he then went to say that Darren Grimes had already been producing “excellent” content, “making very impactful graphics and pushing them out, some of which were performing better than some of Vote Leave’s in terms of engagement rates.” When asked later on at the same event by interviewer Peter Jukes to “tell us about the setting up of BeLeave”, Sanni did not give a clear response, instead telling the audience they “should read the Guardian [sic] article that Carole Cadwalladr wrote” if they wanted a “sort of more… err… less jumbled-up version” of events.

In fact, BeLeave had already been active on social media since at least February (Twitter), a month before Sanni ever claimed to have met any of the people involved.

What did Sanni claim about how he got involved?

In his Channel Four News interview (3:39) on Saturday 24th March, political correspondent Michael Crick claimed that Sanni was “assigned” to join BeLeave by Stephen Parkinson, who was then the National Organiser for the Vote Leave ground campaign. But the next day, on BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend (7:45), Sanni said that he had “bumped into” Darren Grimes at Vote Leave’s offices and “fell in love with” BeLeave as it had the same values as him and progressive, liberal reasons to Leave the EU.

However, at the Byline event on Monday 26th March, Sanni revealed that his earlier story was incorrect and he had in fact met Darren at an event for Out and Proud – a Vote Leave LGBT outreach group. Sanni explained that he had not previously disclosed this publicly because he was not publicly out at the time. He told the Byline event that he and Darren had “immediately clicked” over his “progressive values”. In particular, Sanni said he had “really connected” with BeLeave over the issue of passport discrimination, and that as a result, Parkinson – whom Sanni began dating around this time – had said to him “why don’t you go work on BeLeave?”.

Sanni also gave an incongruous account of how he claimed to have got involved in the campaign through Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica ‘whistleblower’ who self-described as a “smear merchant” in his school yearbook, despite having told media outlets that he was a high school dropout.

Sanni said he had known Wylie for four or five years and “knew that he had worked on the Liberal Democrat campaign, Coalition Government, so I said, can I get involved, do you know anyone in the Leave campaign?” Yet Sanni indicated that he didn’t even know that Wylie was a Eurosceptic at that point.

Former Liberal Democrat colleagues revealed over the weekend that Wylie had been employed only on a fixed-term contract which was not renewed “because he is a compulsive bullsh*tter and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Nick Clegg’s former special adviser said he had “never met him while he was ‘working as a strategist for the Lib Dems in government’ “, while another former Lib Dem colleague said “Chris Wylie thinks he’s Edward Snowden when he’s actually Walter Mitty”.

Wylie himself sent a pitch in January 2016 to Vote Leave Campaign Director, Dominic Cummings, which Cummings rejected, offering to “microtarget” voters using “next generation psychographic methods”, the same practices he has described as “grossly unethical” since becoming a whistleblower. Wylie’s pitch was co-authored with Mark Gettleson, another Liberal Democrat who was forced to resign from Norman Lamb’s 2016 leadership campaign after being accused of unethical push polling.

And last week, Private Eye revealed that other former colleagues of Wylie had described him as “arrogant”, a “fantasist” and a “narcissist”:

“They point, for example, to his boast that during the 2008 US election, aged 18, he “went to learn all things data from Obama’s national director of targeting, which he then introduced to Canada for the Liberal party”. This much touted “Obama campaign” involvement was actually a junior data-entry job.”

What did Sanni claim about his role in either campaign?

There are also contradictory claims about the extent of Sanni’s role at Vote Leave. Michael Crick said on Channel Four News that Sanni had “got to know the Vote Leave guru and leader Dominic Cummings”, but when asked to confirm whether he knew Cummings at the Byline event, Sanni only responded that he “had an idea” who he was and instead spoke about how he was “excited to see Michael Gove and Boris Johnson around the office.”

Despite insisting throughout the last few days that he still supports leaving the EU, Sanni then added “now obviously I have a different sort of opinion regarding [Boris and Gove].”

Meanwhile, Cummings, whom Crick claimed Sanni “got to know”, stated that he had “a vague memory I spoke to him in a corridor and may have been introduced.” Ultimately, Sanni was just one of hundreds of people who came to volunteer at the Vote Leave office over the course of the campaign.

Sanni described himself as Treasurer for BeLeave. However, at the Byline event, Sanni made multiple references to BeLeave’s supposed bank account, when BeLeave did not in fact have a bank account at the time, something which he would have known if he was an active Treasurer for BeLeave.

[UPDATE: And in his biography on the website for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, where he now works, he describes himself as having been Research Director and Board Member, although not Treasurer, of an “independent political campaign, BeLeave”.]

Sanni also displayed little consistency in what he believed the effectiveness of Beleave’s spending to have been. He told CBC on 25th March that he thought the results had been “modest for the amount that AIQ was paid”, while he also talked down the effectiveness of the spending at the Byline event on 26th March, joking with Wylie about the small number of extra email sign-ups he claimed the spending had secured for BeLeave.

But on Good Morning Britain (1:11:49) on 26th March, he gave a completely different account, saying that the spending was on digital adverts, not email sign-ups, and talking up its effectiveness: “£625,000 is more than enough to get you hundreds of millions, even billions of impressions on your adverts. It was a digital campaign which means millions of people were seeing our content”.

What did Sanni claim about BeLeave’s control over its content?

In his Channel Four interview (5:00), Sanni claimed that he had no creative freedom, saying that there was “no time that anything BeLeave did didn’t go through Stephen [Parkinson]… there was no moment we were not involving Stephen in BeLeave’s processes”. But in his Observer interview with Cadwalladr, he said the opposite, claiming that the office was “like a startup. Everyone was throwing ideas around and saying different things. You’re given a lot of creative freedom”.

In the same Observer interview, he said that the content produced by BeLeave was in fact the work of Darren Grimes, telling The Observer: “His content was just really, really good. They were just cool, simple graphics that people would share. His creative side shone through. Everyone recognised that.”

And as highlighted above, he told the Byline event about the “excellent” content Darren produced and how “he was making very impactful graphics and pushing them out”. Sanni then went on to positively discuss at length different examples of content which Darren had created himself, such as graphics about African farmers being kept poor by EU protectionism, and “passport discrimination” against non-EU citizens.

What did Sanni claim about the legality of the donations from Vote Leave to BeLeave?

In his Observer interview, Sanni gave his view that Vote Leave had “cheated” by giving donations to BeLeave. But in his Good Morning Britain (1:09:28) appearance the next day, he instead said that Vote Leave had been allowed to give a “donation in kind” to other campaigns. He also then clarified to the Byline event that this was not illegal, saying that the donation was “paid straight to AIQ, through Vote Leave, as a donation in kind, which is, let me be clear, you can do that.”

And earlier this month, the High Court found as a matter of fact that Vote Leave had been given the assurance by the Electoral Commission that donating to other campaigns without coordination was lawful.

Sanni also claimed on Daily Politics that AIQ had no website when BeLeave used their services. Wylie also claimed at the Byline event that AIQ had no website when Vote Leave began using their services. Both these claims were factually incorrect – the image below shows Aggregate IQ’s website on 4th March 2016:

What did Sanni claim about BeLeave’s control over the donation from Vote Leave?

Sanni’s allegation of wrongdoing centres around his claim that Vote Leave forced BeLeave to spend the donation in a particular way. But Sanni admitted himself on Canadian TV (CBC, 5:40) that BeLeave had decided what to do with the donation, before “correcting” himself: “This was very close to referendum day so by this time…so we had decided to…we had been told that we had to give the money to AIQ.”

At the Byline event, Sanni described how, after he had heard that donors were interested in supporting the BeLeave campaign, he and Darren Grimes had created their own proposal for funding “because we start thinking, okay if people are interested in BeLeave, because we are doing great work, let’s see what they say.” The “baseline” amount Sanni said they were originally targeting, was £10,000, although he said that they also put a “brief note” in the proposal “where it was like if we had £100,000, which we just put in for the sake of it – I even remember having the conversation with Darren.”

He then went on to tell the Byline audience about how he had boasted that “I secured almost £700,000” on his LinkedIn profile, even joking about having exaggerated the figure, while describing it as “proof of the hard work I had put in. “On BBC Daily Politics on 26th March, Sanni admitted that he had no “smoking gun” evidence that proved BeLeave was told how to spend the money. Even Wylie and Sanni’s own lawyers, who compiled their supposed dossier of ‘evidence’, would not back up their clients’ claims directly, only being prepared to say in their legal opinion that they “infer that Vote Leave was involved”. Sanni himself subsequently pulled out of the Monday afternoon press conference organised by his lawyers at the last minute.

Why did Sanni and Wylie appear together at a Byline event?

Byline Media, run by Peter Jukes, is renowned for propagating conspiracy theories, including the suggestion that protests at a recent Jacob Rees-Mogg event were staged by right-wing impostors and that death threats sent to several Leave donors and Andrea Leadsom last month were faked, all as part of an “orchestrated” campaign by Steve Bannon.

Jukes and Wylie themselves spent several minutes of the event on 26th March discussing “culture wars” they believed were being waged by Steve Bannon in the UK to “culturally sanitise” populism in preparation for re-importing that populism to the USA. “It’s not as crazy as it sounds,” Wylie insisted.

Byline confirmed at the event that the Byline Festival had been “supporting” Sanni and his associate, Christopher Wylie, while the website where many of Sanni’s claims have been published, Fair Vote, also states that the “Byline Festival provided necessary funding to launch this project”.

Earlier on Monday, Bindmans LLP, the lawyers for Sanni and Wylie, had told a press conference that they had received donations for their work with Wylie and Sanni but refused to say from whom.

One of the lawyers representing Sanni is Helen Mountfield QC, who was lead QC for thePeople’s Challengewhich intervened on the side of Gina Miller in the Article 50 court case. Mountfield also wrote an op-ed for The Guardian in October 2017 calling for the UK to revoke Article 50 and reverse Brexit, while Miller has already used Sanni’s allegations to argue for a second referendum herself in The Guardian.

The Fair Vote Project is led by Kyle Taylor, former Chief of Staff and Campaigns Director for former Lib Dem MP Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2015. By coincidence, Mark Gettleson, co-author of Wylie’s rejected Vote Leave pitch, was a Lib Dem Councillor from 2010-2014 in Southwark, where Hughes was the Lib Dem MP at the time, having previously served as Hughes’ Campaigns Manager himself.

Taylor was also previously the national field campaign director at the anti-Brexit campaign Best for Britain, originally founded by Gina Miller, who subsequently quit the organisation last year. Miller later slammed the Best for Britain campaign as “undemocratic” after a row over the organisation receiving a £400,000 donation from George Soros, while they are privately viewed as too hardline by the main continuity Remain campaign, Open Britain.

Meanwhile, the Byline Festival wasted no time in attempting to monetise the situation, having already sent out a promotional email earlier that day, encouraging its supporters to “meet our Cambridge Analytica Whistleblowers” and not to “miss out on the chance to spend the weekend at Byline Festival with Chris Wylie and Shahmir Sanni who have kept us riveted on our seats with their revelations about Cambridge Analytica, FaceBook [sic] and Brexit.”

Sanni’s statements are frequently at odds with the facts of the situation, and with themselves. His recollection of key details is erratic and ever-changing, while other errors and inconsistencies suggest that he may not have been involved in either the Vote Leave or the BeLeave campaigns to the extent to which he originally claimed.

His close association with Byline media and related organisations, as well as committed anti-Brexit campaigners and a “Walter Mitty” whistleblower described as a “fantasist” by former colleagues raise further doubts about the credibility of Sanni’s allegations.

In all, it adds up to a picture of an inconsistent and unreliable whistleblower who hasn’t even managed to get his story straight in his own mind before coming forwards.