The Electoral Commission has opened a formal investigation into whether the Conservative Party broke electoral law through its plan to top up the £30,000 grant to redecorate Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat with party donations.
The news is triply significant: as well as the immediate and important question about whether or not anyone broke the law, it keeps the story in the headlines. And perhaps most significantly, it is the first time that any of the relevant regulatory bodies have publicly commented on the row, giving us a hint about what other possible investigations into the matter may ultimately conclude. The most significant of those would be in investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone.
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Falling foul of the parliamentary standards commissioner is arguably less worrying than breaking electoral law, but it has serious legal consequences. Being found to have acted illegally by the Electoral Commission does not come with the possibility of an ejector seat; breaching parliament’s standards does. Thanks to the 2015 Recall of MPs Act it has serious consequences, and could at least cause the government considerable distraction. The highest sanction the Committee on Standards can hand out is a temporary suspension from the House of Commons, which, if it runs longer than ten sitting days or 14 calendar days, would open up the possibility that Johnson could be recalled under the Recall of MPs Act.
While we are a long way from that at the moment, it is now a live possibility. One way or another, we can expect to hear much more about Johnson’s flat and how it was paid for.