Magistrates have turned down an extraordinary request by the Tory MP for South Thanet and his agent to prevent Kent Police from having more time to investigate serious allegations of electoral misconduct, thanks to the far-reaching nature of the case.
Craig Mackinlay, who thwarted UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage’s bid to win a seat in the House of Commons last May, and his agent Nathan Gray are accused of spending far in excess of the legal spending limit on his campaign, in contravention of the Representation of the People Act.
The Act stipulates that any money spent in promoting a local candidate must be declared on the candidate’s electoral expense return, which is signed off by the agent. Failure to do so correctly can result in a jail term.
But, along with a number of other Conservative candidates, Mr Mackinlay is said to have hosted activists in the constituency during the election, putting them up in local hotels, and placed the expense on the Conservative Party’s national expense return instead of his own.
The party also used a battle-bus to deliver party figures and activists to target seats, including South Thanet, but advised candidates to put associated costs on the national returns rather than their own.
Under electoral law forces typically have just twelve months to investigate claims of expense fraud. But as the allegations, made following an investigation by Channel 4 and the Daily Mail, only came to light in January, Kent Police had applied for an extension of the 12 month limit in which to investigate the matter.
Mr Mackinlay and Mr Grey appeared at Folkestone Magistrates Court today, where their lawyer James Laddie QC argued that there had been an undue delay in the investigation and that there were no exceptional circumstances to extend the time limit.
Reports are now emerging that the magistrates have disagreed, and have granted Kent Police an extra twelve months to make further inquiries.
The judge agreed with Kent Police that there were “exceptional circumstances” in South Thanet. He said the use of the battle-buses, and the fact that they were being investigated around the country, was “unprecedented in scale”.
He added that that the matter was therefore very far reaching and that the consequences of a conviction could result in local and national results being declared void, Sky News is reporting.
Channel 4 has released new information today detailing documents and social media posts which reveal how Conservative Party figures were parachuted into the constituency to prevent Mr Farage from winning the seat from the Conservatives.
They say that, as well as the hotel rooms and battle-bus visit on election day in South Thanet, up to a dozen promotional videos made for the local candidate, and a conference room used by a minister also appear to have been left off the candidate’s expense forms.
In total, some 18 forces around the country have applied for extensions to investigate similar claims, some of which have already been granted. Mr Mackinlay was the only candidate to contest the extension.
The Conservative Party told Channel 4 News: “The Party always took the view that our national Battle-bus, a highly-publicised campaign activity, was part of the National Return, and declared it as such. All spending has been correctly recorded in accordance with the law.”