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The £70,000 question: what does the Conservative party election expenses scandal mean for the government?

A dozen police forces have passed files on up to 20 Conservative MPs' election campaigns to the CPS. Could the government's slim majority be at risk?

It's been a bad week for the Tories - and that 17 seat majority is starting to look a lot smaller. Hot on the heels of Philip Hammond's belated and chastening climbdown over NICs came the news that a dozen police forces have handed files to the Crown Prosecution Service over allegations up to 20 Tory MPs in marginal seats broke local campaign spending limits at the general election.  As a result of a separate investigation, the Electoral Commission is to fine the party £70,000 over "significant failures" in its expenses reporting.

The majority of the police complaints concern constituencies visited by the Tories’ RoadTrip2015 battlebuses – a campaign already tarnished by allegations of bullying and sexual harassment among young activists. It is alleged that the party registered RoadTrip’s transport and accommodation costs as national spending despite its use as part of individual MPs’ constituency campaigns Party spending on the latter is limited to £15,000, and the key contention in play is whether money spent locally should have been declared locally. 

Here’s all you need to know.

Where are investigations taking place?

12 police forces have passed files to the CPS: Avon and Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincoln, London, Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and West Yorkshire.

Up to 20 Conservative MPs are under investigation personally, and three – Thanet South’s Craig Mackinlay, Colchester's Will Quince, and Morecambe and Lunesdale's David Morris – are known to have been questioned by police (Quince and Morris have been cleared). All are understood to deny wrongdoing.

The successful Thanet campaign – which saw Mackinlay beat then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage with a slim 2,000 vote majority – is of particular significance. Former Tory chairman Grant Shapps has alleged that Nick Timothy, the prime minister’s joint chief of staff, “orchestrated” the Stop Farage campaign and was based in the constituency for much of the election period without the proper declarations being made, as has Channel 4 News’ Michael Crick. The Tories deny this, and claim – rather unusually – that its national anti-Ukip campaign was headquartered in Thanet.  

What have the Conservatives said?

Not a great deal. Most of the MPs concerned – beyond those who have been cleared – are remaining tight-lipped. The party says it will continue to co-operate fully with ongoing police investigations.

They stress that any misallocation was mere oversight rather than conspiracy – and highlight their national campaign underspend (£15.6 million vs. the £19 million limit) as evidence for their claim they had no incentive to misreport their expenses. It has also sought to stave off the threat of individual prosecutions for affected MPs - which could result in disqualifications and by-elections - by admitting it directed candidates to report battlebus expenses as national spending. 

It added in its response to the Electoral Commission’s report that it believed the other parties to be just as bad - though this half-defence only works on the premise that no intentional wrongdoing was committed. “Political parties of all colours have made reporting mistakes from time to time,” a spokesman said. “The Labour party and Liberal Democrats both failed to declare sums of money which constituted a larger proportion of their national expenditure in the 2015 general election. Both have been fined by the Electoral Commission, and the Liberal Democrats are also under police investigation.”

They added: “CCHQ has always taken the view that its nationally directed battlebus campaign – a highly-publicised and visible activity with national branding – was part of its national return, and it would have no reason not to declare it as such, given that the Party was £2m below the national spending threshold.”

However, though the party insists it “complied fully” with the Electoral Commission’s investigation, it stands accused of “unreasonable and uncooperative conduct”. Its chief executive, Claire Bassett, told the Today programme this morning: “It has been quite a protracted investigation and some of that has been because we have had some difficulty in getting information from the party and indeed had to resort to seeking a court order at one point.

What happens now?

The more excitable quarters of the left – not least the Canary – have speculated that this could topple May and, in particularly hopeful quantum leap, result in the EU referendum result being declared void. Such drastic recriminations are, to put it mildly, unlikely – but that isn’t to say things won’t get uncomfortable for the government.

Criminal prosecutions – and thus disqualifications – are unlikely unless candidates can be proven to have acted dishonestly. As the allegations currently stand, says the FT’s legal expert David Allen Green, this is difficult to see happening. Punitive fines are much more likely.

But there could well be electoral consequences even if MPs escape disqualification: the taint of Tory corruption could prove a boon for the resurgent Lib Dems in its lost marginals, especially in its erstwhile West Country heartlands. The future of May’s Downing Street machine could also depend on the outcome of the Thanet investigation: if any wrongdoing is proven to have taken place on Timothy’s part, his position could well become untenable. 

Oh, and Nigel Farage says he'll likely stand again if the South Thanet contest is re-run. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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