In Brief

EU referendum: Conspiracy theories or establishment bias?

Brexit campaigners claim dirty tricks have been used by the Remain camp


The EU referendum takes place next Thursday 23 June with polls suggesting that even though the Leave camp is currently in the lead, the UK's future in Europe will be decided by the large number of voters who have not yet made up their minds.

The Government's official position is that the UK should stay within the EU but some ministers are campaigning for Brexit – and some of their side believe David Cameron has used unfair means to try to carry the vote.

Brexit campaigners cast themselves as rebels facing up to a political establishment that will do whatever it can to keep the UK within the EU. The other side says many of the accusations amount to no more than a series of bogus conspiracy theories.

So what is the truth behind the various claims of dirty tricks?

The deadline extension

What happened: The deadline to register online to vote in the referendum was originally midnight on 7 June. When the system collapsed that evening, as thousands hurried to register at the last minute, the deadline was extended by 48 hours.

The allegation: Some Leave campaigners claimed Cameron was keen to extend the deadline because the bulk of unregistered voters were young people – students who had not signed up after the system changed so that their parents could no longer do it for them. As young people are more likely to want to remain in the EU, says the theory, Cameron wanted them to vote.

Verdict: No conspiracy. The deadline extension was recommended by the Electoral Commission and, as The Guardian reported, the extra 48 hours were available for anyone to sign up, not just pro-EU voters. 

Sarah Wollaston was a mole

What happened: Sarah Wollaston is a Conservative MP who initially backed the Leave campaign but switched sides over what she said were Leave campaign's lies about extra money for the NHS in the event of Brexit. A GP for 20 years, Wollaston chairs the House of Commons's Health Select Committee. She accused Leave campaigners of dealing in "post-truth" politics for putting the NHS claim on the side of their battle bus.

The allegation: Last week – when they weren't doing so well in the polls – some Brexit supporters, including MP Stewart Jackson, claimed Wollaston was a Government plant, the Huffington Post reported, saying she had always planned to defect. Nadine Dorries MP said her exit was "deliberately staged and political".

Verdict:No conspiracy. Sarah Wollaston has been an "unabashedly outspoken" critic of David Cameron, George Osborne and Conservative policy throughout her six years as an MP, observes Michael Deacon in the Daily Telegraph. He ridicules the idea that she was a stooge, pointing out she would have to have been recruited as a double agent six years ago – and that would make David Cameron "the greatest strategic genius in political history".

The TV debate that was a 'stitch-up'

What happened: On 7 June, David Cameron and Ukip leader Nigel Farage took part in a TV debate on the referendum. They didn't go head-to-head but each took questions from a studio audience.

The allegation: Scottish Ukip MEP David Coburn took to Twitter that evening, said the Dundee Courier, fuming that the questions had been pre-selected by the BBC and chosen to favour Cameron's side. However, "Cameron still lost despite Aunties [sic] best efforts", Coburn added.

Verdict: No conspiracy. As other Twitter users were quick to tell Coburn, the debate he had just watched took place on ITV, not the BBC. ITV said it was normal practice to pre-select the questions in order to ensure they were balanced. 

The Vote Leave 'registration' scam

What happened: According to The Independent, Vote Leave paid for an advert on Google which placed its website at the top of UK search results for the phrase "register to vote". It then presented users with a webpage with a form that said "register to vote now". But users filling in their details and clicking the button did not register to vote – they simply sent their information to Vote Leave.

The allegation: Education Secretary Nicky Morgan reported Vote Leave to the Electoral Commission over the advert and webpage, accusing the campaign of "misleading" the public with "underhand tactics".

No verdict. The Electoral Commission said it did not regulate the content of campaign websites and could not therefore investigate. The Independent noted that after the complaints Vote Leave "modified the data collection website so that it also directed users to a generic website", while Political Scrapbook said the page had been "quietly deleted".


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