20 Jan 2016

Will the Electoral Commission act over Tory Thanet expenses?

Did the Tories spent twice as much in defeating Nigel Farage in Thanet South last year as they were legally allowed under the rules?

Traditionally, election expense returns are among the great works of fiction in British politics. These days there are not just restrictions on constituency spending but also legal limits to what the parties can spend on their national campaigns. And today the Electoral Commission officially announced how much each of the major parties claimed to have spent nationally last May, along with receipts of everything they spent over £250 on their national work. The Conservatives say they spent £15.6 million in all, well below the £19 million national limit; Labour £12.1 million; the Lib Dems £3.5 million, Ukip £2.9 million, and the SNP £1.5 million.

But there are also local expenses limits for each candidate in each constituency. The trouble is, if local agents have problems fitting their spending within the legal constituency limit, then is there a temptation is to pass it off as a national expense instead? Is that what the Conservatives did in Thanet South?

Helpfully, the Electoral Commission has also published receipts for the parties national spending as well – you can peruse them all on their website.

What stood out for me was a series of four bills claimed by the Conservatives for the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate last spring, in the constituency Nigel Farage was hoping to win, and which saw a fiercely-contested campaign. The hotel bills total £14,213.18 for the five weeks of the short campaign, from 30 March to 7 May.

RAMSGATE, ENGLAND - MAY 08: UKIP leader Nigel Farage (2nd-L) looks on Alastair James Hay, better known as comedian 'Al Murray' who portrays an English pub landlord (2nd-R) congratulates Conservative Party candidate, Craig Mackinlay, after he was announced as the winner of the South Thanet constituency on May 8, 2015 in Ramsgate, England. After the United Kingdom went to the polls yesterday the Conservative party are confirmed as the winners of a closely fought general election which has returned David Cameron as Prime Minister with a slender majority for his party. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Yet the legal expense limit in Thanet South for that period was £15,016.38, and according to the Conservatives’ local expense return for the constituency, submitted last June, they spent £14,837 on the campaign, just £179 short of the legal limit.  If one included the hefty bills from the national figures for the Royal Ramsgate Hotel – and I suspect many experts would argue they should be – then the total to elect Craig Mackinlay as the MP comes to £29,050, almost twice the legal spending limit in that seat.

The hotel bills show that the Conservative had several rooms in the hotel throughout the campaign – on some night as many as five. The former Conservative press officer Henry McCrory was among those sent to work in Thanet South full-time.

A Conservative spokesman told Channel 4 News tonight: “All election expenses are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with Electoral Commission rules.” Apparently, the Conservatives argue that the staff they had staying at the Royal Harbour also worked in other constituencies as well. That seems improbable, since the nearest other serious marginal seat is about an hour’s drive away. In any case, the Electoral Commission rules make it clear that if an expense covers more than one seat then the cost should be apportioned between the local accounts for the various places. It would be interesting to know which other constituency campaigns the guests at the Royal Harbour Hotel went to help.

Nigel Farage’s former adviser Raheem Kassam, who helped run his Ukip campaign in Thanet South told me: “There’s something very suspicious about these expense claims. Even if they thought they were working on other constituencies with this money, they don’t appear to have followed the Electoral Commission rules in this.”

I don’t expect Ukip to make an official complaint, however. There’s a kind of gentlemen’s agreement among the political parties that they don’t complain about each other’s expense returns.

But election spending is a serious issue. There are spending limits for good reasons – to stop wealthy parties buying elections. And that could be more of a problem in the years ahead as Labour loses sources of funding, in part, it fears because of measures in the Trade Union bill going through Parliament.

This case is an important test for the Electoral Commission, which has long had a reputation for being pretty tame and toothless.  But the information about the Royal Harbour is up on their website. If they’re not going to examine and if necessary police party expense returns, then what’s the point of having rules and limits? And what’s the point of the Electoral Commission?

I suspect they’ll do nothing.