The Electoral Commission has fined the Conservative Party a record £70,000 over missing and unreported payments, claiming the rule breaking gave them a “realistic prospect” of an unfair advantage over UKIP in South Thanet.
In three by-elections in 2014 and at the 2015 UK Parliamentary general election, the Tories failed to record or incorrectly recorded payments totalling more than £250,000, the commission said.
Claire Bassett, chief executive of the Electoral Commission, told Sky News Thursday morning the Tories had been uniquely uncooperative during the investigation compared with other parties. The commission was even forced to take out a court order to get information from the party.
The Conservatives receive millions of pounds in donations a year, and Mrs. Bassett said bigger fines were needed to stop “some political parties… view[ing] the payment of these fines as a cost of doing business”.
A police investigation is on-going, and “knowingly or recklessly [making] a false declaration” about spending in election campaigns is a criminal offense. The Electoral Commission may refer former Conservative Party treasurer Simon Day to the Metropolitan Police following their investigation.
Commenting on the ruling, Sir John Holmes, chairman of the Electoral Commission, added: “Our investigation uncovered numerous failures by a large, well-resourced and experienced Party to ensure that accurate records of spending were maintained and that all of the Party’s spending was reported correctly.”
It was reported last week that police interviewed Craig Mackinlay – who narrowly defeated the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage in 2015 – under caution for six hours.
It was widely speculated the Tories had improperly sent senior staffers to Thanet in a last ditch attempt to keep Mr. Farage out of Parliament, leading to UKIP supporters starting the #ThanetRigged hashtag, where they demanded an investigation.
The Electoral Commission concluded today the Conservative Party’s 2015 UK Parliamentary general election spending return was missing payments worth at least £104,765.
Separately, payments worth up to £118,124 were either not reported to the Commission or were incorrectly reported by the party. The party also failed to include the invoices or receipts for 81 payments to the value of £52,924.
Much of the investigation, including in South Thanet, revolved around the infamous “Battle Bus”, which took activists to campaigns in key marginal seats. It was logged as national spending, rather than spending in individual constituencies.
Responding to the Commission’s findings last night, the Conservative Party attempted to deflect blame, pointing out to The Times that both the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats also failed to declare spending for the 2015 election.
“This is the third investigation we have recently concluded where the largest political parties have failed to report up to six figure sums following major elections, and have been fined as a result,” said Sir John.