I know it seems like centuries ago now, but cast your mind back to those heady comparatively carefree days of early 2016. Back then we were basking in the first few months of a new year under Tory rule. The referendum was but a glint in David Cameron’s eye and Donald Trump a mere troubadour in the posse of clowns lined up to be the Republican Presidential nominee.
The UK leaving Europe seemed almost as laughable a prospect as the US picking a combed-over, bellowing baboon to be the most powerful man on the planet. We had more pressing political storms to navigate and one of them concerned allegations about some rather creative accounting surrounding the Conservatives’ expenses returns for the 2015 General Election.
Hardly anyone appeared to want to talk about it, not least the two regulars on the BBC This Week Show, but it was something that was starting to raise eyebrows amongst bolder sections of the media. Channel 4 News were the most forthright, pursuing the case with dogged determination.
For those who weren’t paying attention at the time, or have had the details blotted out by even more bizarre events since, the allegations centered mainly around the use of the Tory battle bus and the use of ‘bussed in’ campaigners in key constituencies. During general elections, parties have national and local limits to abide by. The explanation put forward by CCHQ is that the bus should come under national expenditure, whereas others argue that it was used to bolster local campaigning, especially when it brought in large numbers of canvassers and leafletters to specific target areas. Other potential irregularities concerned costs for hotel bills and other support expenses which, along with other allegedly under-declared claims from three by-elections in 2014 amounted to a little under £140,000.
The Conservatives claimed they had nothing to hide but the electoral commission had only a year to take action. With concern mounting that CCHQ were reluctant to hand over paperwork surrounding the allegations, the police were brought in to focus their minds on the task.
It seems like a technicality, but spending limits during elections are incredibly important. Parties like the Conservatives, buoyed by the backing of rich vested interests, could easily swamp any other party if they were allowed free rein. So keeping account of expenses is vitally important. All candidates in an election, especially a national one, have it impressed on them that failing to complete accurate expenses returns could lead to serious trouble, including fines and even imprisonment. I was a candidate myself in 2015 and even though The Green Party couldn’t come close to any of the spending limits, records of campaign costs had to be meticulous. How accurately you record your expenditure is every bit as important as how much you’ve spent.
In the grand scheme of the millions spent by the major parties in 2015, the disputed amounts involved don’t seem like much – but the impact in key seats could have been huge. The Channel 4 investigation identified 24 constituencies that they said had exceeded the local spending limit, with 22 of those being taken by the Conservatives. With a result that only gave them a majority of 12 it’s something that could well have swung the balance of power. If such a scenario were to play out, we may not have been living under Tory rule for the past 20 months and issues such as Brexit and other damaging policy decisions may never have happened.
All this brought us up to around May last year when copious quantities of excrement were launched into the jet stream of the runaway train that became the EU referendum. At that point the hashtag #toryelectionscandal saw its opportunity and made a dash for the long grass, where it remained. Until now.
This week, news has started to leak out from a police source that their investigations have come to some conclusions and that papers would be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service within weeks. It’s believed that everything has boiled down to around 6 of the original 24 constituencies under scrutiny, with one police source reporting:
“it’s widely thought that they will make examples of one or two cases.”
It’s likely that South Thanet could be one of those half dozen as this was the original case that caught the attention of the Channel 4 investigation where they claimed that Craig Mackinlay MP declared spending of £14,838 when the real figure was £33,989.
Several sources, including ministers and their aides have expressed concern about the investigation and it’s said to be causing something of a stir in No 10. One source has been quoted as saying:
“The problem for No 10 is that they do not know where this will end and they do not know who is leaking against them. They are deeply worried about this.”
And they’re right to be worried. CCHQ has apparently sought to amend what they have characterised as ‘administrative errors’ on some expenses returns so it would seem there is something to answer for here. If found to be in breach of electoral law, some of the Conservative campaign team could be looking at jail time or a fine at the very least.
Even though I think a spell in the chokey is an unlikely event, there is the very real possibility of the results in some of the constituencies being declared void. That would necessitate fresh by-elections which could potentially erode the government’s slim majority in the house. This could all be happening as the government struggles to keep on top of important national issues, such as Brexit. Not a great time to be having to fight to keep your majority. Although judging by current polls and the results in the Copeland election, it might not be that tough for Theresa May to hang on to her job.
So more than ever we need to see opposition parties pull together in the hope of overturning as many of these dubious results as possible. It could be the one golden opportunity to derail the current administration before the next General Election. Our one chance to halt the damage to the NHS, prevent damaging cuts to local services and social care, and perhaps even remove the gun that May has put to the heads of every one of us over negotiations with the EU.
It all sounds too good to be true, and it may well turn out to be. But then again many of us would never have predicted the events we’ve all seen over the last 10 months. Could this roll of the political dice turn out to be third time lucky for those of us who desperately want to see some positive outcome from 2016? We’ll know in a few short weeks time. I’m hoping for a double six.