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1 November 2019

New election spending rules could force Tory MPs to turn down Boris Johnson visits

A Supreme Court ruling means that local candidates have to foot the bill for national campaigns that visit their constituencies.

By Patrick Maguire

Conservative MPs have discovered yet another reason to dislike the Supreme Court. In this morning’s Times, Oliver Wright highlights a small but significant change in election rules that is already forcing Tories in marginal seats to make tough choices.

December’s election will be the first in which candidates will have to include visits from their party’s national campaign in their local spending return — capped at just £15,000 for the duration of the short campaign. If Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn endorse or share a stage with a local candidate on the stump in a marginal, that candidate must now foot at least some of the bill. 

The Supreme Court provided a new interpretation of electoral law in the wake of the conviction of Marion Little, the Conservative election agent in South Thanet in 2015, for falsifying her spending return earlier this year. Craig Mackinlay, the Tory candidate, beat the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage after a campaign which saw CCHQ staff based in hotels in the constituency for the duration of the campaign. The cost was wrongly declared as part of the Conservatives’ national spend. A protracted police investigation and court case followed. 

Despite the hopes of some opposition activists, no Conservative victory in 2015 was subsequently voided as a result of the scandal. But it will have a profound impact on how they are able to fight in 2019. Most Conservative MPs who ended up supporting Johnson did so because they believed he was the only candidate with the star power and campaigning acumen required to unite the Leave vote and keep them in a job.

Now, however, those who are defending slender majorities must decide whether a visit from the Prime Minister is worth forgoing other campaign expenditure for: on essentials like leaflets, postage and social media advertising. One minister describes the ruling as “beyond insane”. Nobody is yet sure how it will be applied in practice: several competing interpretations are doing the rounds among MPs.

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But ultimately, they will face a stark choice. “It’s between Boris and another round of freepost,” one says. “And I’ll probably pick the freepost.” It could also increase the burden on the police if, as some MPs speculate, the Tories cut down on event security costs to reduce the financial penalty on candidates they visit.

The new regime could also prevent Tory candidates from taking advantage of visits from other cabinet ministers, too, as well as activists bussed in from other parts of the country. One MP hoping for a new rail link to their constituency jokes: “I want Boris. I’d take Grant Shapps. But I’m probably only going to be able to afford Chris Heaton-Harris now.” 

Conservative MPs who looked at May’s European election results and concluded their days could be numbered, quickly concluded that a Johnson-led campaign would save their seats: after all, that is why he ended up as Prime Minister. But they could be about to find that their leader will have to play a much smaller role in their seats than they would like.