The pro-Brexit campaign group Grassroots Out has sacked its team of full-time regional organisers, BuzzFeed News has learned, wiping out a key professional campaign network with just weeks to go until the EU referendum vote.
Around a dozen full-time agents were made redundant last month, despite helping to found local anti-EU campaigns and coordinate volunteers in the run-up to the vote on 23 June.
One former Grassroots Out agent claimed staff had originally been promised a job until after the EU referendum and suggested the organisation, founded by Tory MPs Peter Bone and Tom Pursglove, now resembled a "zombie campaign".
The decision to sack the professional staff before the vote shows the problems caused by rival factions within the anti-EU movement building their own organisations and competing for the support of the same activists.
The ex-agent suggested the decision to sack staff meant the campaign now had a network of anti-EU volunteers across the country who would no longer be coordinated, potentially damaging the pro-Brexit campaign. They also claimed individuals at the top of the GO organisation had blocked efforts to work with the official anti-EU campaign, Vote Leave, due to personal enmities.
“A lot of people in Grassroots Out wanted to work with Vote Leave after they got designation, but people at the top of Grassroots Out didn’t want to work with Vote Leave," said the former agent. "If you’re going to support a football team you’re not going to support a football team that’s gone into an unofficial league. It makes sense to work with Vote Leave."
Grassroots Out confirmed that its "regional campaign executives", who were hired through its website but were employed by sister organisation GO Movement Ltd, had been let go.
Each covered a specific geographic area of the UK and were originally supposed to support 650 task forces that would campaign in individual constituencies in the run-up to polling day.
Grassroots Out and Vote Leave battled it out to be designated as the official anti-EU campaign ahead of the referendum. GO Movement, which also had the backing of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, wanted to focus the anti-EU campaign on issues involving immigration, but narrowly missed out on the designation to Vote Leave.
The former agent claimed they had been promised a job regardless of whether the organisation got the designation: “There’s a lot of people who left quite decent jobs to go for it. They’re now feeling despondent and upset and Grassroots Out has completely reduced its funds."
Recriminations between Grassroots Out's UKIP and Tory factions began soon after it missed out on designation, when BuzzFeed News revealed the founders, Bone and Pursglove, had collectively charged Grassroots Out £40,000 for running their own political organisation.
Grassroots Out initially defended the payments, before issuing a second statement insisting "some individuals have jumped to conclusions without being in full possession of the facts". In the second statement the organisation said the Tory MPs were donating all their income from Grassroots Out straight back to Grassroots Out "to spend the maximum amount on campaigning" .
This statement was sent on 21 April, around the same time the full-time GO Movement agents claim they were sacked.
“It was outrageous," said the former agent. "They were getting paid loads of money and couldn’t afford to keep me on."
The ex-agent suggested some of Grassroots Out's agents were on contracts paying over £30,000 a year.
They also said they had been left unemployed by the decision, which came out of the blue. “They’re all very nice people, but it could have been organised better," they said. "You can see why Vote Leave got the designation. Even UKIP activists were very annoyed at Grassroots Out, because they weren’t getting any ground support from them."
Richard Tice, chairman of the GO Movement board, said the staff had been sacked after failing to win the designation as the official campaign: “The GO Movement was an umbrella group set up to apply for designation as the official Leave campaign. As the GO Movement did not win designation, it became redundant and inactive.
"The regional campaign executives were employed as part of a nationwide campaign to be run in the event of the GO Movement winning designation. As GO Movement was unsuccessful in its designation bid, the GO Movement board decided it was not in a position to keep the campaign executives in position."
Peter Bone MP, co-founder of Grassroots Out, said his campaign had been scaled down but would continue to host events around the UK ahead of the referendum.
“Grassroots Out, one of the independent organisations which sat beneath the GO Movement umbrella, continues with a refocused and targeted campaigning effort between now and June 23," he said. "Since designation, Grassroots Out has received a number of sizeable donations and will campaign within the Electoral Commission’s £700,000 spending limit.”
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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