20 Apr 2016

Conservatives admit failure to declare election expenses

The Conservative Party has admitted spending tens of thousands of pounds campaigning in 29 key marginal seats in 2015’s general election that was not declared to authorities, Channel 4 News reveals.

Channel 4 News has obtained further undeclared receipts showing more than £38,000 was spent accommodating activists at hotels across the country, as part of the BattleBus2015 campaign. The spending was not declared to the Electoral Commission in accordance with the law.

The investigation has also obtained evidence that the BattleBus campaign was focused on local candidates, suggesting the accommodation costs incurred should have been declared on local candidate spending returns, if so this could constitute a criminal offence.

If local campaigning had taken place, 24 of the 29 constituencies visited by BattleBus would have exceeded the legal spending limits set out by law. 22 of these seats were won by the Conservatives.

In the South West overall, the Tories won 14 seats all from the Lib Dems.

The Conservative Party today confirmed to Channel 4 News that it had failed to declare the costs related to the Battlebus hotels due to what it described as an “administrative error” despite previously stating that all of the party’s returns were accurate.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “CCHQ campaigned across the country for the return of a Conservative Government. Such campaigning would be part of the national return, not local return, as the Electoral Commission has said. As is apparent from our National Return, the Party declared expenditure related to our CCHQ-organised Battlebus.

“However, due to administrative error it omitted to declare the accommodation costs of those using the vehicles. This is something we have already brought to the attention of the Electoral Commission in order to amend the return.

“The Party always took the view that our national Battlebus, a highly-publicised campaign activity, was part of the National Return – and we would have no reason not to declare it as such, given that the Party was some millions below the national spending threshold. Other political parties ran similar vehicles which visited different Parliamentary constituencies as part of their national campaigning.”

The Electoral Commission told Channel 4 News today: “The Commission is currently conducting an investigation into the Conservative Party’s 2015 General Election spending return and will consider carefully any new allegations that are raised as part of the Channel 4 News programme.

“In line with the Commission’s Enforcement Policy, the Commission does not comment on on-going investigations, as to do so may hinder the conduct of the investigation.”

The Battlebus Campaign

The campaign focused on 9 key seats in the South West, a Liberal Democrat stronghold, 10 seats in the Midlands and 10 in the North, both targeted at holding or taking seats from Labour.

The BattleBus campaign was conceived by the now infamous Party operative Mark Clarke, the so-called “Tatler Tory” who is accused of bullying a young Tory activist Elliott Johnson, who committed suicide. Mr Clarke denies the allegations.

In documents obtained by Channel 4 News, Clarke conceived a plan to bus an army of activists to key marginal seats in the last 10 days of the election campaign. The plan was signed off by Conservative chiefs.

According to a document seen by Channel 4 News, the operation would be “solely persuasion-based targeted door to door campaigning” and would be “used to stimulate further local campaign support. The resource can be centrally controlled and move.. to meet local or national immediate need.”

Free Transport and accommodation

The Conservative Party hired four coaches, which were wrapped in special BattleBus2015 livery, at a total cost of £34,937.

The coaches were deployed in the key battlegrounds across the country.

Activists were offered a five-day trip, including free accommodation, food and transport in return for a contribution of just £50.

The volunteers were to be accommodated in hotels in three regional “hubs” – Taunton and Glastonbury in the South West, Tamworth in the Midlands and Bolton in the North.

From each base, the activists were deployed to a different key marginal each day.

In rural Cornwall, activists were put up for one night at a youth hostel at the Eden Project at a cost of £1,083.

In Taunton, 29 rooms were taken over 5 nights at a cost of £7,359.

In Glastonbury, 29 rooms were taken at the Travelodge over 5 nights at a cost £6,615.

In Tamworth, 35 rooms were taken at the Travelodge over 10 nights at a cost of £13,653.

In the North, 38 rooms were paid for at Holiday Inn at Bolton over 5 nights at a cost of £9,350.

Some of the rooms were shared.

The total bill for accommodation was £38,201. But none of the accommodation costs were declared to the Electoral Commission.

The costs of coach hire and livery were declared by the Party as a national expense.

Local or national spending?

The Conservative Party and individual MPs have told Channel 4 News that BattleBus was a “national bus tour authorised and paid for by CCHQ” and “intended to promote the Party’s success in the General Election.”

Under election law, “national spending” is distinct from “candidate spending”. National spending refers to the nationwide campaign, such as billboards, and does not cover individual candidates.

Constituency spending is limited, to approximately £15,000 per seat, depending on the number of registered voters.

Channel 4 News has obtained evidence that the BattleBus activists were involved in local campaigning. However the costs incurred were not declared by the candidates in their spending returns.

Activists visiting seats were provided with a “script” (pictured below) for use on the doorstep. In North Cornwall, for example, that included them introducing themselves on the doorstep “on behalf of the candidate.”

Prior investigation

Channel 4 News’s Political Correspondent Michael Crick has spent more than three months investigating Conservative Party expenses in 2014 and 2015.

Our first investigation in January revealed the party had spent more than £14,000 at the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate, which they claimed as a national rather than a local expense.

On 25 February we revealed huge sums of seemingly undeclared spending by the party in 2014 in three key by-elections in Newark, Clacton-on-Sea and Rochester and Strood.

We also revealed how the Party bussed activists to multiple “Stop Farage” events in South Thanet. The costs, including overnight accommodation, were not declared.

You can read how the investigation has proceeded at ElectionExpenses.co.uk.