By MARCUS STEAD
THERE IS something very odd about the circumstances surrounding this general election. Actually, I think Theresa May was being truthful when she said upon becoming Prime Minister that she would not call a general election before the planned date in 2020. But events surrounding Conservative Party expenses irregularities at the 2015 general election have overtaken her.
Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that 14 of the 15 files relating to expenses irregularities had been dismissed, with the remaining one (which was submitted at a later date) still being considered. This only tells part of the story.
Back in January 2016, election receipts were published by the Electoral Commission. The following month, Channel 4 News broadcast allegations surrounding the issue for the first time, and the Electoral Commission opened its own investigation shortly afterwards.
The allegations centred on the Conservative ‘battlebus’, where coachloads of party activists toured marginal seats around the country to canvass on behalf of the local candidate to do the work once done by local party members.
There, in itself lies a crisis. In 1951, the Conservative Party had 2.9 million members nationally. Exact membership numbers over the years are hard to attain, but we were told in 2005 that 253,000 were eligible to vote in the contest that saw David Cameron become leader. Twelve years on, the total party membership stands at around 134,400.
Even that number is overly-optimistic. Quite a few of them are decades-long members, now in their 80s and 90s, and too frail to actively campaign. In other words, the party is very short of foot soldiers, so this ‘battlebus’ strategy is their only viable method of intense campaigning in key marginal, yet it remains a legally dubious strategy.
Within a very short period of time, 14 police forces were investigating claims the ‘battlebus’ campaign broke legal spending limits, and in May 2016, the forces met with the Electoral Commission.
These investigations came increasingly close to home for Mrs May when, in November, one of her aides, Nick Timothy, was drawn into allegations into the situation in the South Thanet constituency.
A total of 30 Conservative Party MPs and agents found themselves under investigation, with their cases being passed on to the CPS. The crux of the investigation was whether costs associated to the battlebus were being registered as part of the ‘national’ or ‘local’ campaign. This is a crucial distinction, and one, that if declared wrongly, could land MPs and agents with court convictions.
In March this year, the Conservative Party was fined £70,000, the maximum, for a failure to declare £275,813 in election campaign expenses. The Electoral Commission also reported Simon Day, the Party Treasurer, to the Metropolitan Police over the spending allegations. The body also accused the Conservative Party of ‘unreasonable uncooperative conduct’, which delayed their investigation for a number of months.
What began as a report on a news programme broadcast to a small audience consisting mainly of bourgeois leftists now posed a real threat to the stability of Theresa May’s government.
The Conservative majority in the Parliament that has just been dissolved was just eight seats. That meant that only four of the MPs would need to be charged by the CPS and found guilty in court for Mrs May’s majority to be wiped out.
The timing would also have been significant. Trials, if they had gone ahead, would not have taken place until much later in the year, and verdicts may not have been reached until well into 2018.
Any MP who had been found guilty would inevitably have to resign their seat. That scenario risked leaving Mrs May with little or no majority at all in the Commons, with a backdrop of sensitive EU negotiations, a fragile economy and possibly a new, more capable Labour leader.
Calling a general election greatly reduces these risks for two reasons. Firstly, it in part nullifies the 2015 election results. Any MP who was found guilty of running a financially irregular campaign in 2015, but a ‘clean’ one in 2017, could argue that they were currently elected as the result of a fair contest, and not resign their seat, even after having been found guilty in court.
Secondly, if, as the polls suggest, the Conservatives are returned with a significantly increased majority, Mrs May could afford to lose quite a number of MPs who had resigned as a result of guilty verdicts in court.
These were the reasons for Mrs May’s change of heart. It is a much more coherent explanation than the one offered in her peculiar speech outside Number 10, where she talked about Britain needing ‘certainty, stability, and strong leadership’, and how her mind was changed on the issue of calling an election while walking with her husband in the Welsh hills.
The CPS’s decision not to press charges on at least 14 of the 15 files, announced three weeks later, will probably have caught Mrs May and her advisers by surprise, but her reaction to it was unwise, to put it mildly. She said: “After a full and lengthy investigation, the legal authorities have confirmed what we believed all along and what we said all along, which was that the expenses, that local spending, was properly reported and properly declared and that the candidates did nothing wrong.”
You might want to check that, Mrs May. What Nick Vamos, the CPS Head of Special crime actually said was: “Although there is evidence to suggest the returns may have been inaccurate, there is insufficient evidence to prove to the criminal standard that any candidate or agent was dishonest.”
Mr Vamos’s words are hardly those of exoneration. He went on to point out in relation to the ‘battlebus’ costs: “It is clear agents were told by Conservative Party headquarters that the costs were part of the national campaign and it would not be possible to prove any agent acted knowingly or dishonestly. Therefore we have concluded it is not in the public interest to charge anyone referred to us with this offence.’
The ‘battlebus’ occupies a grey area between the ‘national’ and ‘local’ campaign.The 2015 election battlebus was not designed as a tool to support local campaigns, but it ended up becoming one. The Electoral Commission’s report from March, which resulted in the £70,000 fine, stated:
“[106:] The Commission has found no evidence to suggest that the Party had funded the Battlebus2015 campaign with the intention that it would promote or procure the electoral success of candidates. Nevertheless, coaches of activists were transported to marginal constituencies to campaign alongside or in close proximity to local campaigners. In the Commission’s view, there was a clear and inherent risk that activists might engage in candidate campaigning. Further, it is apparent that candidate campaigning did take place during the Battlebus2015 campaign.”
The Conservative Party was sailing very close to the wind with the campaigning methods it used in 2015, and was fortunate to be let off the hook, albeit after the general election had been called. Mrs May did not need to call the election after all, but she will still be breathing a huge sigh of relief.