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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?

By Patrick Maguire

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.

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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. 

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