Buy-election? Tory MP fails to block election fraud investigation

The Conservative Party logo. © Leon Neal
A Tory MP’s attempt to block a police inquiry into allegations of election fraud committed by his party has been rejected by the courts.

According to Channel 4 News and the Daily Mail, Conservative candidates are said to have written off as “national spending” the cost of transport and hotel rooms for hundreds of activists bused in to rally support in contested parliamentary constituencies, breaking legal spending limits.

The rules say this spending should have been registered as local costs.

Last week, Kent Police applied for an extension of the 12-month statutory limit into investigations of potential breaches during the 2015 general election.

In response, Craig Mackinlay, the Tory MP for Thanet South, and his election agent, Nathan Gray, launched a legal bid to argue that no extension should be granted.

But the judge at the Folkestone Magistrates Court said he had “no hesitation” in granting the police a 12-month extension to prosecute, and that there was a “significant public interest in this being investigated.”

According to Kent Online, magistrate Justin Barron said: “The consequences of a conviction would be of a local and national significance with the potential for election results being declared void.

“The combination of circumstances before me is wholly exceptional and goes far beyond the usual circumstances that would exist in a typical case where election expenses are being investigated.”

Timothy Straker QC, who represented Kent Police, said the allegations clearly warranted an extension.

“We have here a circumstance that is exceptional in an election… we have an allegation of funds being used – in what some might put it – to buy an election.”

James Laddie QC, who represented the Conservative MP and his agent at the hearing, said Kent Police had not proven there were “exceptional reasons” for an extension.

He told the court it was “grossly overstating the position that one cannot imagine that this is as serious as it gets.”

There was no evidence to suggest that the election had been “bought” and the result in Thanet South would have been the same, he argued.

In last year’s Thanet South election, however, the margin between MacKinlay and second-placed Nigel Farage, the high-profile leader of the UK Independence Party, was less than 3,000 votes – making the result susceptible to extra efforts by party activists bused in.

Under electoral rules, inquiries into such allegations are normally expected to be completed within 12 months of the poll.

But the law allows for extensions to this where there are “exceptional” circumstances.

Last week, police forces in Devon and Cornwall were granted more time to investigate the expenses of four Tory MPs in southwest England.

There are now 19 forces investigating claims that 28 Conservative MPs benefited from “battle buses,” but did not declare the costs locally.