Has the General Election saved the Government from a fraud scandal that may have toppled it?
Over the previous two days, I looked at two possible reasons why UK Prime minister Teresa May opted for a snap election, to obtain a stronger mandate in the Brexit negotiations and a timely chance to destroy the Labour Party.
These have been much written about and mulled. The third reason though is one you may not have heard about, especially if you gather your news only from the right wing press.
Election spending is firmly controlled in UK Law and exceeding those spending limits is a criminal offence. Parties may only spend specific amounts in each constituency, with national spending limits being set at a separate level. The Conservatives stand accused of hiding local spending in narrow constitutencies and burying it as national spending.
In March, Channel Four News reported that during the 2015 election, the Conservatives had sent their national battlebus packed with party activists into some of the closer constituencies but had failed to declare the costs or count them against the spending in those constituencies.
The police began investigating more than two dozen Conservative MPs and found a serious case to answer. Despite Conservative attempts to impede the investigation including withholding evidence, 14 police forces sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) relating to undeclared overspends due to the 2015 battlebus scheme. These included important electoral battlegrounds like Avon & Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon & Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, the Metropolitan (London), Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire.
The facts and their guilt is not in doubt. The party has already been fined £70,000 ($84,000) after an Electoral Commission investigation. In its report, the Electoral Commission said it
“is satisfied that a proportion of the reported spending [on the Battlebus]was candidate campaign spending” but was “not included in any relevant candidate’s campaign expenses return, casting doubt on the accuracy of those returns”.
According to the Press Gazette, payments worth up to £118,124 ($141,700) were either not reported to the Commission or were incorrectly reported by the party. Much of that was recorded as national party spending when it should have been recorded as candidate spending in individual constituencies.
Wheels of justice beginning to turn
With the wheels of justice turning and the Conservative Party sensing its own guilt. a series of criminal prosecutions of their MPs loomed. On top of that, the convictions would set off a series of by-elections in marginal seats. Channel 4 News reported on Tuesday evening that the CPS is considering prosecution against over 30 individuals with regards to the 2015 election expenses. That number includes party luminaries, electoral agents as well as the MPs themselves.
Holding a majority of just 17, any by-election in a seat you hold is unwelcome. But 14 by-elections caused by prosecutions for cheating to win them would have been especially challenging, especially as the bus tended to visit close run constituencies in 2015.
Although the snap election will not prevent prosecutions, it will prevent by-elections where the focus would have invariably been on Conservative fraud. Their flouting of UK constitutional law would have been especially embarrassing for the party claiming to be battling for Britain and its values in the negotiations with the alien EU behemoth.
That will all be lost in the hurly-burly and national issues that dominate in a general election.
Opposition politicians have tried to make some protest about it. Scottish National Party MP Stewart McDonald asked the Prime Minister,
“Doesn’t it take some brass neck to call a General Election when you are facing allegations of buying the last one?”
United Kingdom Independence Party leader Paul Nuttall directly connected the calling of the quick election to this issue,
“There is also the prospect of a slew of Tory-held by-elections caused by the seeming systematic breach of electoral law at the last election, predominantly in places where UKIP were pressing the Conservatives hard.”
According to Professor Justin Fisher of Brunel University, Nuttall’s claim is less than factual but he doesn’t see a worst case scenario unraveling for the Conservatives,
“The biggest threat to the Tories in most of these seats comes from the Lib Dems. The election could turn out to be a considerable miscalculation if a lot of them are charged in the immediate period before the general election. But I would be surprised if all of them were.”
The prosecutions may begin before the election. A Crown Prosecution Service spokesman said the announcement of the snap election would have no impact on the timing of decisions on whether to press charges.
Can the scandal still hurt the Conservatives?
Some may wonder however if there’s any point in prosecuting the so far unnamed MPs if they are about to leave office. In many of the seats, the Conservatives may be tempted to replace their existing MP with an untainted candidate further reducing the electoral damage, although there is no prospect of an actual conviction before June 8.
Given the domination of issues like Brexit and austerity, the announcement of prosecutions may fade into the shadows especially among those newspapers supporting the Conservatives. If any of the accused are candidates this time around, the news could probably hurt them individually and cost a seat or two among the 14.
But that is a totally different ball game from 14 by-elections in marginal seats with a standing majority of 17, and a chance for those voters to bring down the government. That may explain why Mrs May opted for an early June General Election more than anything, notwithstanding Labour’s woes and supporters of a Hard Brexit on her backbenches.