Evidence obtained by Channel 4 News appears to show that the Conservatives racked up tens of thousands of pounds in undisclosed spending across three by-elections.
The details of the allegations – and the documentary evidence – are below.
The Conservatives contest the Newark by-election following the departure of the sitting MP Patrick Mercer. During the regulated period – in which spending is tightly controlled – they declare a spend of £96,190.98, close to the legal limit of £100,000. But Channel 4 News has discovered evidence of £10,459.30 in additional apparently undisclosed spending from hotel bills in the local area – which would potentially put them over the regulated amount. We have obtained receipts from the Kelham House County Manor in the constituency, where Stephen Gilbert, then political secretary to the Prime Minister, and others stayed. Stephen, now Lord Gilbert, was in the area just before the regulated period began.
Robert Jenrick retained the seat for the party.
The party also puts up a vigorous contest in the seat of Clacton following the defection of MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP. Again, during the regulated period, they declare a spend of £84,049.22 – but Channel 4 News has obtained receipts showing an estimated £26,786.14 that appears not to have been disclosed. As with the Newark contest, the bills come from two hotels – a more upmarket hotel in the town for senior staff and a Premier Inn for junior staff members. Factoring them in, it would seem to be over the legal limit by £10,835.36.
Douglas Carswell held the seat for UKIP – becoming the party’s then sole representative in Westminster.
The Conservatives appear to deploy greater resource still into the Rochester by-election following Mark Reckless’ dramatic departure from the Tory party at UKIP’s annual conference. Their declared spend comes in close to the legal limit – totalling £96,793.08. But bills obtained by Channel 4 News from the town’s Premier Inn and from the Bridgewood Manor hotel appear to show another £56,866.75 of what seems to be undisclosed spending. The receipt from the former shows rooms booked in the name “Mr Conservatives” – while this programme has also obtained pages of bookings from the more upmarket establishment.
Mark Reckless retains the seat as UKIP’s second member — but then loses it in a fiercely contested General Election campaign.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage had chosen Thanet South as his target seat in a bid to join his colleagues in Westminster. The Conservatives devote significant resource to trying to stop Mr Farage – as several senior party figures spent time in the area at various times during the campaign. The spending limit for the short campaign – which runs between April 7 and polling day on May 7 2015 – is £15,016 per constituency. But the Conservatives include a bill for £14,000 at the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate in their national submission to the Electoral Commission, raising questions about why expenditure in this town should be counted towards the UK-wide limits.
The matter is reported to the Electoral Commission and Kent Police, while the party again insist that their expenditure is within the rules; Channel 4 News understands that the Conservatives maintain that the bills for the Royal Harbour Hotel are legitimate as staff were apparently working on other local campaigns as well. In a blog published in January 2016, Political Correspondent Michael Crick points out that there are no other marginal seats within an hour’s drive of Ramsgate.
Channel 4 News has also obtained a further bill from the Premier Inn in Margate – finding a payment for £4,242.60 including bookings for six Conservative Party Members. While the Premier Inn Margate is in the neighbouring constituency of Thanet North, this is a non-marginal seat which the Party has held since its creation in 1983. None of their accommodation or potential staff costs appear to have been declared as constituency expenses in Thanet South.
Channel 4 News has established that in April 2015 and in May of that year the Conservative Party bought newspaper advertising at a local newspaper in Thanet called Thanet Extra. While the content of the advert related to the national campaign, this paper is distributed only on Thanet, so is restricted to its two constituencies, Thanet North and Thanet South.
The Party paid the Kent Messenger Group £16,483.20 for the adverts, which were then submitted to the Electoral Commission as a national expense.
Under the Electoral Commission guidelines, we understand that the cost of these ads should have been split between the two constituencies and should have been categorised as constituency spending, given the limited circulation area of the newspaper.
The Conservatives respond to Channel 4 News’ allegations. A spokesperson tells this programme that “All by-election spending has been correctly recorded in accordance with the law.”
On the allegations relating to the three by-elections, a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission says that it will be considering whether “any of the allegations made… also come within the Commission’s remit or are strictly matters for the police to investigate.”
On the allegations relating to the General Election, the Conservative party spokesperson said: “All spending has been correctly recorded in accordance with the law.”