At least 12 Conservative MPs are facing the possibility of criminal charges tonight – after they were referred to the CPS by police over their election expenses following a year long investigation by this programme. And there are more allegations that this scandal leads to the heart of Downing Street.
From Devon and Cornwall to Cumbria – prosecutors will now decide whether to lay charges for failing to properly declare spending in their election campaigns.
The Channel 4 News investigation prompted an unprecedented national inquiry by the Electoral Commission and then by more than a dozen police forces.
Channel 4 News has obtained new secret emails – which reveal how two more of Theresa May’s closest advisors were involved in the most controversial campaign of all – the party’s battle against Ukip leader Nigel Farage in South Thanet.
Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s Political Secretary and Chris Brannigan, Director of Government Relations at the Cabinet Office are named in a cache of secret emails about the Conservative campaign in South Thanet during the 2015 General Election.
Both men spent time as part of a “crack team” of senior Conservative campaigners sent down to the Kent constituency where the party was fighting a desperate battle to ensure Nigel Farage was denied a parliamentary seat.
Emails previously obtained by Channel 4 News suggest that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Nick Timothy assisted on Mr. Mackinlay’s campaign.
A team of nine officers at Kent Police are now examining whether the Conservative Party’s candidate Craig Mackinlay and his agent Nathan Gray broke election laws by failing to properly declare spending that was used to promote his campaign.
If you have any information - here is how you can contact the Channel 4 News Investigations team.
Mr Mackinlay was interviewed under caution by Kent Police for more than six hours over the weekend. Police are planning to meet with the Crown Prosecution Service next week.
The Electoral Commission, which has been also investigating Conservative Party spending in the 2015 General Election and three by-elections in 2014 is expected to release its report within days.
None of the aides were responsible for how local spending was declared or are accused of any wrongdoing. But the activities of the campaign team are understood to play a “significant part” in the police investigation.
Read the full timeline of the Election Expenses investigation - every report, the documents and profiles of all the key characters.
The Conservative Party have consistently claimed that the team sent to South Thanet by Conservative Headquarters in March 2015 was part of the “national” campaign team.
However new emails, photographs and footage seen by Channel 4 News show Stephen Parkinson and Chris Brannigan and other senior staff worked to promote Mr Mackinlay as a local candidate.
The team was photographed that month during a campaign visit by the then Home Secretary Theresa May. The group included Nick Timothy, Stephen Parkinson and Chris Brannigan with Henry Macrory, the former Conservative Party’s Head of Press, Marion Little and the candidate Craig Mackinlay.
They are all photographed with the Prime Minister Theresa May.
The senior team were all put up at the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate, where the Conservative Party racked up a bill of more than £14,000 over the course of the campaign. None of the costs incurred at the Royal Harbour hotel were declared by Mr Mackinlay in his expenses return.
For example on the 20th of April Marion Little wrote to the hotel manager requesting rooms:
“Henry Macrory and Mrs Macrory till Friday. Nick Timothy arriving tonight leaving Friday. Chris Brannigan arriving tonight leaving Sat. If you can book me right through until the 8th of May that would be good. Do you have a room for Stephen Parkinson for Wednesday and Thursday night?”
Police are now investigating whether that bill, or a proportion of it, should have been declared on the local spending declaration signed by Mr Mackinlay as a “complete and accurate return as required by law”. Election law dictates that any money spent “promoting the candidate” should be declared by that candidate or his agent.
The Conservative Party insist the hotel was used for the national campaign, and that none of the staff working there were working on Mr Mackinlay’s campaign.
However, the emails seen by Channel 4 News suggest they were involved in Mr Mackinlay’s campaign.
Mr Brannigan is named as the “candidate’s friend” in a list of campaign team staff.
He was also copied-in to emails scheduling daily meetings of “Team South Thanet”, including Craig Mackinlay.
“Just to confirm that this weeks’ meeting schedule is as follows:
Monday 23/3 6.30pm
Tuesday 24/3 9.30am 6.30pm working supper tbc
Wednesday 25/2 9.30am
Thursday 26/3 9.30am
Friday 27/3 8-9.30 Business breakfast”
In a further email, Brannigan is named as part of a canvassing “team” which knocked on doors and distributed literature to local voters.
In an email to the “local team” dated April 6th 2015, Marion Little wrote:
“We are starting the first Big Canvass in Beacon Road tomorrow on the roads I think you have discussed.. We have run new canvass cards off.
We have a team of Nathan, Lynne, Sam, Craig, Chris Brannigan and David Taylor.. + any locals so hopefully with 7 plus canvassers out from 2 to 5 we can make a big impact.”
Channel 4 News has also obtained photographs and video footage of Mr Brannigan campaigning locally for Craig Mackinlay.
On May 4th 2015, Mr. Brannigan was filmed by a Channel 4 News team wearing Craig Mackinlay rosettes and handling bundles of leaflets. He is pictured holding a local map detailing which part of the constituency were to be canvassed.
No costs associated with Mr Brannigan’s involvement were declared in Mr Mackinlay’s spending return.
In January 2016, Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s Political Secretary, told Channel 4 News political correspondent Michael Crick he had stayed at the Royal Harbour Hotel and helped in South Thanet in a “voluntary capacity”.
New emails seen by Channel 4 News show that Mr Parkinson played a part in drafting a letter to be sent to voters in South Thanet from the former Conservative MP Laura Sandys, urging them to vote for Craig Mackinlay.
On April 15 2015 Mr Parkinson wrote to Nick Timothy and Marion Little, attaching a copy of the letter.
“Needs a suitable local address adding in – and I think we should include the squeeze bar chart at the end,” he wrote.
The letter states:
“That’s why I’m asking local people – no matter who they usually vote for – to support local man Craig Mackinlay on 7 may to stop Nigel Farage in his tracks.”
“Craig is a local man through and through. He’s the son of a local greengrocer and a local businessman who employs 25 people.. Please give your vote to Craig Mackinlay on 7 May.”
Mr Parkinson also appears to have been with other members of the senior team on April 15th, when the then Home Secretary Theresa May came to South Thanet to campaign with Craig Mackinlay.
The emails show how Marion Little and a “crack team” of senior Tories effectively took over the campaign, organising the printing and distribution of leaflets, marshalling volunteers and even managing Craig Mackinlay’s local election budget.
Marion Little sent regular updates on how the local campaign was going, and a daily diary for Craig Mackinlay.
On the 25th of March she wrote: “Candidate: now working almost full time… good news is that Kati, his wife is now on the campaign trail for much of the time and is a big asset. We are putting together a daily programme and looking at getting Craig and Kati to do a sponsored bike ride (on a tandem) being organised by the local newspaper for the local hospice.”
Four days later she is seen ordering local canvass cards for specific polling districts in the constituency.
“I want to produce canvass cards for the following Polling districts:
Cliftonville West M1/MJ1/MJ2
Sir Moses Motefiore RC/RD
On April 8 2015, she sent a postal vote letter template for South Thanet to CCHQ for signoff. The letter says:
“I am hugely proud that I was born and raised in Kent – and I have always served our local community.”
The letter was signed “Craig Mackinlay, Conservative Candidate for South Thanet.”
The same day, Ms Little wrote to Paul Sorkin and Stephen Ion at CCHQ saying:
“Attached are the final versions of the A3 two horse race leaflet we need 30,000 for Friday evening – is that possible and how much? I have £800 in the budget.”
“Also we want 15k of the calling cards as cheap as possible and as soon as possible.”
Ms Little was also involved in organising a “south Thanet army” that were shipped into the constituency to campaign for Mr Mackinlay.
The “army” was organised by Deborah Feldman, the sister of the then Conservative Party Chairman Lord Feldman.
On April 8th, Deborah Feldman wrote to Marion Little about “Interns for Thanet”:
“As discussed please find below a list of potential South Thanet soldiers for you to have on the ground at all times between now and polling day. This is in addition (they’ll be based in S. Thanet – we are looking into accommodation etc.) to any of the volunteers we get to you on Thursdays/Saturdays from London.”
Marion Little later wrote an email to the “South Thanet soldiers” stating:
“Thank you for joining our campaigning on the ground….
We are campaigning flat out and need help with a variety of tasks including:
· Delivery, both door to door and targeted
· Canvassing – we have Big Canvas organized every day
· Visits supporting our campaigning
· Practical campaigning like our graffiti clean up.”
The Conservative Party has consistently claimed that the team staying at the Royal Harbour Hotel were part of the “national” campaign, and that any costs incurred did not need to be declared on Mr Mackinlay’s local return.
In March 2016, Kent Police wrote to Mr Mackinlay specifically asking if “any of those persons who stayed at the Royal Harbour Hotel were engaged on the local campaign at any time, or whether they were engaged solely engaged solely on the national campaign.”
In his written answer to Police on the 27th of March, Mr Mackinlay insisted: any national Conservative Party staff based in the Royal Harbour Hotel were part of a national campaign team and were engaged in activities at the direction of Conservative Central Headquarters.”
Kent Police is due to meet with the Crown Prosecution Service to discuss the evidence on the 21st of March. If the CPS decides to charge, they must do so before the 11th of June, when the time limit under the Representation of the People Act expires.