Conservatives ‘understated’ spending in South Thanet where Craig Mackinlay beat Nigel Farage

PUBLISHED: 11:06 16 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:06 16 March 2017

Craig Mackinlay is announced as the winner at the Thanet South count at the Winter Gardens, Margate, Kent, 8th May 2015.

Craig Mackinlay is announced as the winner at the Thanet South count at the Winter Gardens, Margate, Kent, 8th May 2015.

Ady Kerry

The party was fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission following “numerous failures”

The Conservative Party appears to have understated its campaign spending in the key battleground seat of South Thanet where they successfully fought off the challenge of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, the Electoral Commission has found.

The watchdog highlighted the role played by a team of national officials based in the constituency during the 2015 general election, including a senior campaigns officer, a senior press adviser and two political advisers.

Although they are not named in the report, the advisers have previously been reported to include Theresa May’s current chief of staff Nick Timothy, who was an adviser to her in the Home Office.

The Conservatives argued that they had, unusually, based their national anti-Ukip campaign in the Kent constituency, mirroring the fact that Ukip’s national campaign was also there.

However, the commission found that a proportion of the party’s national spending actually related to the effort to secure the election of the local candidate, Craig Mackinlay, and should have been declared in his election return.

“The commission cannot determine precisely what proportion of spending on the party’s team in South Thanet should have been apportioned to Mr Mackinlay’s campaign,” it said.

“This is largely as a result of the party failing to keep records sufficient to establish the appropriate apportionment.

“However, the commission notes that as a consequence of the party reporting these costs, they were missing from Mr Mackinlay’s candidate campaign expenses return.

“Consequently it appears that the party understated the spending it incurred on Mr Mackinlay’s campaign, and as a result there is doubt as to the accuracy and completeness of his election expenses return.”

The spending included £15,641 for rooms in the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate, which was declared as part of the party’s national spending return.

The commission also found that the party failed to declare a further £3,809.03 in hotel bills for the Premier Inn in the town.

The Conservatives blamed “simple human error” but the commission said that was not a “reasonable excuse”.

On the political advisers, the commission said they had played “key roles” in determining Mr Mackinlay’s campaign messages and in drafting campaign material “promoting Mr Mackinlay’s electoral success”.

It found a “number of examples” of them commenting or advising the wording of Mr Mackinlay’s campaign message and digital content, including a comment from one adviser on a YouTube video the other had created.

It stated: “Thanks... This is ok as far as it goes BUT why are we not trying to convey the messages better? Anybody can stand in sandwich saying traffic is bad. The point is that (C)raig brings cabinet ministers here and can get things done.... Every time we communicate without the messages we are at best wasting our time and at worse losing votes.”

The party also listed several other individuals as being part of the team, including volunteers providing further support, such as assisting with national tours and events held in Kent, attending Ukip rallies and events and monitoring the activities of Mr Farage.

It comes just days after reports emerged of Mr Mackinlay being questioned for six hours under caution by Kent Police last week in relation to his expenses.

Responding to inquiries about the Sun’s report that Mr Mackinlay had been subject to questioning last week, the force said in a statement: “The Kent Police investigation into this complex matter is ongoing and officers continue to follow lines of inquiry.

“Therefore it would not be appropriate to comment further.

“Officers from Kent Police continue to work with the Electoral Commission as the investigation continues.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “We are co-operating with the ongoing investigations.”

Reports also suggest Kent Police will meet with the Crown Prosecution Service on Tuesday to discuss a possible prosecution, though this too has not been confirmed by any party.

Mr Mackinlay, and his office, declined to comment when contacted by KoS throughout the week.

The commission also highlighted the Tories had made “numerous failures” in reporting its expenses for the Rochester and Strood by-election in 2014, in which Mark Reckless, who defected from the Conservatives to Ukip, defeated Kelly Tolhurst - a vote that would then be reversed less than 12 months later in the general election.

Consequently, the watchdog imposed a record fine of £70,000.

Commission chairman Sir John Holmes said the Tories’ failure to follow the rules “undermined voters’ confidence in our democratic processes” and said there was a risk political parties were seeing such fines as “a cost of doing business”.

The Conservatives said they had complied fully with the commission’s investigation and would pay the fine that has been imposed.

“Political parties of all colours have made reporting mistakes from time to time,” a party spokesman said.

“The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats both failed to declare sums of money which constituted a larger proportion of their national expenditure in the 2015 general election.

“Both have been fined by the Electoral Commission, and the Liberal Democrats are also under police investigation.

“This is the first time the Conservative Party has been fined for a reporting error. We regret that and will continue to keep our internal processes under review to ensure this does not happen again.

“Given the range of technical errors made by a number of political parties and campaign groups, there also needs to be a review of how the Electoral Commission’s processes and requirements could be clarified or improved.”

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