How the Tories could lose their Parliamentary majority, courtesy of the police and the voters

In the news this week was the advice from the Electoral Commission to the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) that they should apply for an extension to the legal deadline for investigation the 2015 general election expense returns from candidates.

The question is whether campaign activity which was included in the national Tory expense return should really have been included in constituency returns, and so would have taken them over the legal limits.

This all follows the digging by Michael Crick and Channel 4 into the way in which activities which were charged against the national election return by the Conservatives look to have included local campaigning for named candidates, and even the distribution of leaflets with the constituency candidate and agent imprint on them.

Even Tories themselves were tweeting about the bus tours backing named candidates:

Conservative battle bus tweet - Grant Shapps
Conservative battle bus tweet

The story so far has already resulted in the Conservatives admitting that £38,000 was left off their national election expense return which should have been there.

More important, however, is the question of constituency returns, as if sums were missing from those they may well have taken Conservative constituency campaigns over the legal limit. As the Electoral Commission says:

Parliament has determined that anyone found guilty of an offence under the RPA [Representation of the People Act] relating to candidate spending or the making of a false declaration in relation to candidate spending, could face imprisonment of up to one year, and or an unlimited fine. The effect of a conviction is also that for 3 years a person convicted of an illegal practice is unable to be elected to the House of Commons or to hold elective office.

Given the significant penalties that parliament has made available for such offences, the Commission’s view is that in the absence of any current investigation by the police, it would be sensible for the criminal justice agencies to retain the ability to take action should appropriate evidence come to light as part of the Commission’s own investigation.

Note that sentence, “The effect of a conviction is also that for 3 years a person convicted of an illegal practice is unable to be elected to the House of Commons or to hold elective office.”

There are around 24 Conservative MPs in the firing line over these allegations (and then there’s the separate issue over Gavin Barwell).

Telegraph fined £30,000 for illegal 'vote Tory' emails

The Information Commissioner has fined Telegraph Media Group - which operates the Daily Telegraph - £30,000 for breaking the law at the general election by sending out emails including a message urging people to vote Conservative. more

If all this ends up in convictions, it could result in MPs being disqualified and a round of by-elections being held to elect new MPs for those constituencies. It would only take a small number of voters in a small number of by-elections to change their views from 2015 and see the Conservatives lose their majority in Parliament.

The optimistic Liberal Democrat may be wondering now if the party might go into 2020 with rather more than 8 MPs. The pessimistic Liberal Democrat will remember how the party fared the last time there was a hung Parliament…

(As to whether that would in turn result in an early general election, see the rules on fixed-term Parliaments.)

P.S. It’s worth remembering that even if the Tories have kept within the law, there’s a big problem with what the law permits when it comes to election expenses.

UPDATE: 12 police forces now studying Tory election expenses.

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