Up to 30 individuals, including MPs and their agents, could face criminal charges during the general election campaign following allegations of ‘systematic’ Tory electoral fraud and overspending.
The revelation comes the day after the prime minister called an early general election, ostensibly blaming Labour and the Liberal Democrats for attempting to thwart Brexit.
However, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage said the Tories were “terrified of something breaking”, implying they had called the election to pre-empt a series of by-elections relating to the fraud allegations.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) revealed the possible prosecutions to Channel 4 News last night, insisting they will continue to pursue the cases and the snap General Election announcement has no impact on them whatsoever.
The deadlines on whether or not to bring charges expire towards the end of May and early June, a CPS spokesman added.
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) April 19, 2017
Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner also picked up on the building controversy over the timing of the elction announcement, calling on the Prime Minister to confirm that no member who was under investigation by the police would stand again in the June vote. The Prime Minister side-stepped the question, replying she would “stand by” all Conservative members of the house who sought re-election.
Commenting on the fraud allegation and the early election, Mr. Farage said on his LBC radio show Tuesday night:
“I think the Tories were terrified of something breaking over the course of the next few months, by-elections to be held in September, certainly a dozen seats in which there was the possibility of a by-election – some say even 20. And that for a government with a working majority of 12.”
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) April 18, 2017
Many of the allegations are likely to relate to a set of election campaign “battle” buses organised by disgraced former Conservative Party candidate Mark Clarke.
The running costs of the buses and associated hotel bills appeared on the Tories’ national expenses return. But the CPS thinks they should have been charged to individual Conservative candidates and their campaigns.
Labour MPs were quick to link the alleged scandal to Prime Minister Theresa May’s surprise decision to call a snap election on Tuesday.
“Could this be another reason for Mrs May breaking her promise not to hold an early election?” questioned Labour MP Ben Bradshaw on Twitter. “Explains why the PM changed her mind to call an early, unnecessary general election”, added Mary Creagh, the Labour MP for Wakefield.
One of the first to make the allegation, however, was current UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, who made the suggestion in a statement shortly after Mrs. May announced the nation would be going to the polls for the third time in three years.
“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,” he said in the statement.
Deputy UKIP leader Peter Whittle also said the decision was “utterly cynical”, claiming there was “no question” the Tories were acting in their own self-interest.
Some of the most serious alleged Tory overspending happened in South Thanet, where former UKIP leader Nigel Farage stood against the Conservatives – who spent £15,000 on one hotel alone.
The Conservatives were fined a record £70,000 on 16 March 2017 over missing and unreported payments, with the Electorial Commission claiming the rule breaking gave them a “realistic prospect” of an unfair advantage over UKIP in the seat.
Mr. Farage has said he would stand again in the seat if there was a by-election but is yet to confirm if he will stand in June’s general election.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd denied last night that the prospect of a series of by-elections was the reason the general election was called. Asked by Channel 4 News if MPs charged in connection with these cases should step aside, she said:
“We’re not trying to get in the way at all of the proper due process of law, that must go ahead, but we believe that the Conservatives and the MPs in question and the agents have behaved properly.
“If there are any conclusions to the contrary, we will pay the fines, whatever is appropriate.”