Throughout the hashtag crusade about 2015 election expenses, this site has urged readers to consider the facts of the law, rather than the partisan and emotive claims of campaigners. Put simply, the law on election spending requires proof of intent to commit a crime. Errors made in good faith, by the person in question or by others on their behalf, are not criminal offences.
As we reported in March, this was one reason why a lot of Conservative MPs blamed CCHQ for getting them into the uncomfortable position of police investigations. The battlebus visits, a central feature of the allegations in today’s news, were assessed by CCHQ to be compliant with the rules defining national, not local, election spending. That assessment apparently wasn’t correct, but the Conservative Party advised MPs that a visit from a battle bus would not count towards their local spending return, and MPs took them up on the offer in good faith. Many felt (and still feel) that CCHQ could have nipped the whole row in the bud by making that clear to the authorities at the outset, and accepting at the centre the consequences of an error made by the centre.
Before today, we already had the case study of Johnny Mercer, against whom no action was taken when it turned out the inaccuracy in his election return was due to an honest mistake (and, incidentally, involved a very small amount of spending). That illustrated the practicalities of the law, and should have cautioned some people against going to (arguably libellous) extremes in assuming that an accusation was enough to demonstrate guilt. In the hot-headed Twittersphere, and on the increasingly detached-from-reality left, those facts were ignored – if they even read them in the first place.
Three things happen next. First, the Conservative Party Chairman is effectively putting hashtag warriors and opposition parties on warning about repeating baseless claims. His statement this morning said:
“A number of false and malicious claims continue to be spread on the internet. People should be aware that making false claims about a candidate’s personal character and conduct is an electoral offence, as well as being defamatory.”
Second, questions are being asked of the police and the Electoral Commission over their active and lengthy investigations into allegations which were dubious from the outset. McLoughlin’s statement also says:
“After a very thorough investigation, we are pleased that the legal authorities have confirmed what we believed was the case all along: that these Conservative candidates did nothing wrong. These were politically motivated and unfounded complaints that have wasted police time.”
Karl McCartney, one of the MPs who was subject to investigation, goes further:
“It is clear that those who lead the Electoral Commission who followed and allowed this action to take place are politically-motivated and biased – actions that have rendered this organisation wholly unfit-for-purpose. In these circumstances, the positions of the Executive Team and Senior Management Group – from the Chief Executive down to her side-kick, Louise Edwards, who has spearheaded many, if not all, of these one-sided enquiries – are now untenable and I believe that they should resign forthwith.”
It should be noted that William Wragg, in the same situation, has said he does “not begrudge” investigators doing their job.
Third, and finally, there is one file apparently still open. The CPS is yet to decide on the file passed to them from Kent Police – which means that while simpler allegations like Mercer’s, and the allegations against a group who received battlebus visits, are now gone, prosecutors are yet to decide whether to bring charges over the more complex claims about the campaign in South Thanet. There, too, it is a question of national versus local spending, though much of the case revolves around hotel bills for Conservative staffers either in the seat or nearby, which brings added complexity. We don’t yet know when we’ll hear about that one, or what the outcome might be.