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29 April 2021

What is the Electoral Commission, and why should Boris Johnson be worried?

It is fitting that the origins of the organisation investigating the Prime Minister can be traced back to Tory corruption in the 1990s.

By Freddie Hayward

The Electoral Commission has announced a formal investigation into whether the Conservative Party broke electoral law through its plan to fund the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat, with commissioners saying they were “satisfied that there are reasonable grounds” to suspect an offence may have been committed. A bureaucratic organisation little-known outside Westminster circles has suddenly become front-page news.

The Electoral Commission is the independent body that is responsible for overseeing elections, registering political parties and generally scrutinising the money involved in politics. All political parties and campaigners must report donations and campaign spending to the Commission. Commissioners also write reports about elections, publish data around topics such as turnout, and run referendums.

Crucially, one of the primary roles of the Commission is to investigate potential breaches of the financial rules that govern political parties, election candidates and those who hold elected office such as MPs. ­­­During their investigations, commissioners can issue a notice requiring a person to provide information or documents. They can issue fines up to £20,000, but if a breach involves a criminal offence, and it is particularly serious, they will hand over the investigation to the police. 

These are “serious investigatory powers”, according to David Howarth, a professor of law at Cambridge and former electoral commissioner. He described the Electoral Commission’s staff as “experienced, specialist” and “dedicated”.

“Its powers are greater than those of Parliamentary committees, for example, and while not as extensive as those of the police (the Commission has no surveillance powers, for example) they are not to be trifled with,” he said. 

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[See also: Will these stories about Boris Johnson “cut through”? It’s the wrong question to ask]

The Commission currently consists of nine electoral commissioners, three of whom have specific responsibility for representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The other six are nominated by party leaders, and are then vetted by a committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The makeup and selection of the Commission is designed to protect its impartibility. Nonetheless, it can in itself sometimes become an issue of political contention. For example, its previous chair, John Holmes, was the subject of complaints by Conservative MPs over comments he had made expressing regret over Brexit before taking on the role. The implication was that Holmes might be unable to lead the Commission impartially, and his attempt to extend his term by another four years was rejected by the Speaker’s committee which oversees the commission.

The Conservative Party has come into conflict with the Commission elsewhere. In 2019, a Tory Party employee was sentenced for election fraud in the 2015 South Thanet race where Nigel Farage was standing. The following year, party chair Amanda Milling criticised the Commission saying it was “unaccountable” and “not fit for purpose”. 

It is fitting, then, that the origins of the Commission can be traced back to Tory corruption in the 1990s. In 1994 John Major founded the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the wake of the cash for questions scandal, whereby Conservative MPs took bribes to ask questions in parliament. The committee, which also introduced the Nolan Principles for public conduct, released a report recommending that a commission oversee elections and political finance. Labour eventually passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act in 2000 that created the Electoral Commission. 

The ongoing row about who paid for the renovations on the Downing Street flat are only the latest accusations of corruption to hit Boris Johnson’s government. Allegations of sleaze are nothing new for the party. But unlike Conservatives in the 1990s, Johnson will have the Electoral Commission to contend with.

[See also: Corruption in Britain has reached new heights under Boris Johnson’s government]