Tory candidates did nothing wrong on election expenses, May claims

PM says 2015 local spending was properly reported but CPS finds some evidence that battlebus declarations were inaccurate

General election 2017 – live updates

No criminal charges will be brought against more than 20 Conservative MPs over the national party’s failure to accurately declare campaign spending on a battlebus tour at the 2015 election.

The Crown Prosecution Service said their constituency spending declarations “may have been inaccurate” but concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove dishonesty or bring a criminal case against the MPs and their agents.

At issue was whether the costs of a Conservative campaign battlebus should have been accounted for by local campaigns where the legal spending limits are tighter at between about £11,000 and £16,000, depending on the size of the constituency

Nick Vamos, the CPS head of special crime, said it was not in the public interest to bring charges. “By omitting any battlebus costs, the returns may have been inaccurate,” he said. “However, it is clear agents were told by Conservative party headquarters that the costs were part of the national campaign and it would not be possible to prove any agent acted knowingly or dishonestly,” he said.

The long-awaited decision provoked an immediate backlash from senior Conservatives, with party chairman Patrick McLoughlin claiming the pursuit of the complaints had been “politically motivated and a waste of police time”.

One Tory candidate, Karl McCartney, threatened to mount a campaign to get the Electoral Commission, which monitors campaign spending, abolished if it does not sack its senior management.

Officials at the Electoral Commission and journalists had previously uncovered mistakes in the Conservatives’ declarations of spending, which led to a record £70,000 fine on the party at a national level. A related police investigation into its registered treasurer, Simon Day, is ongoing.

The allegations were considered serious enough for 14 police forces to investigate for almost a year and would have been an explosive twist in the election campaign had they proceeded to charges. Breaching local spending limits is a criminal offence and could lead to a jail term and disqualification from public office.

Theresa May declined to apologise for any mistakes and said those who made the complaints should “consider the basis on which they made those complaints”, as they had taken up police time. She also insisted the legal authorities had “confirmed what we believed all along and said all along which was the local spending was properly reported and the candidates have done nothing wrong”.

There is one outstanding file under consideration relating to Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative hoping to be reelected as MP for Thanet South. This involves separate claims about his failure to declare the expenses of senior Conservative aides who were based full-time the constituency helping to orchestrate the campaign against his opponent, Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader.

Conservative MPs who have been told they have no charge to answer by the CPS include McCartney in Lincoln, William Wragg in Hazel Grove, James Heappey in Wells, Marcus Fysh in Yeovil, Scott Mann in North Cornwall, Neil Carmichael in Stroud, David Nuttall in Bury North, Paul Scully in Sutton and Cheam, and Anna Soubry in Broxtowe.

There are about a dozen more who are thought to be have been visited by the election battlebus, but have not spoken out about whether they faced investigation, so their names have not emerged. The CPS did not name any individuals, but did say that 14 police forces had referred files to it.

The battlebus accusations focused on the declaration of spending on the Conservative campaign tour in 2015, which took activists to dozens of marginal seats before the election. This was declared as national campaign spending, with the Tories some millions below their official limit.

However, it emerged that the activists had been campaigning on behalf of specific Conservative MPs, rather than the party generally, leading to claims that the spending should have been recorded as local expenditure.

Campaigning in Nottingham on Wednesday, May initially insisted that the Conservatives have “always reported expenses according to the rules” and maintained that “local spending had been properly reported”.

Pressed by the Guardian on how she could say the local returns were all accurate in light of the CPS statement, she did not repeat the claim. “The CPS has decided that no charges will be brought. Candidates did nothing wrong. What we are doing now at this election is going out there with a positive message about the future of our country,” May said.

McCartney, one of the cleared MPs, went even further in his attacks on the investigations, which he claimed were due to a “witch-hunt” instigated by the Electoral Commission. He said the elections watchdog should be abolished or have its senior management replaced. “It is clear that those who lead the Electoral Commission who followed and allowed this action to take place are politically motivated and biased – actions that have rendered this organisation wholly unfit for purpose.”

McCartney argued that the commission’s chief executive, Claire Bassett, and her leading team should resign, adding that if they did not he and colleagues would try to persuade the government to “abolish this incompetent organisation”.

Opposition politicians said the Tories still had questions to answer. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he was “interested and surprised”. He said the Electoral Commission and the CPS were independent, but election laws “must be enforced so that money can’t buy power”.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National party leader, had previously said that the fear of prosecution had driven May’s early election, and stressed the previous fine by the Electoral Commission. “So I think there are big questions to answer,” she said.

“Notwithstanding the fact the CPS say there is not the evidence, the high bar of evidence, to prove criminal intent, there is lots to suggest that the Tories were ‘at it’ when it came to how they were allocating election expenses in some constituencies.”

There was also some discontent within the police about the decision not to proceed to prosecution. One senior police source said: “Effectively the offence has been decriminalised and that is a dangerous day for democracy.

“It is so important to have integrity in public office, the duty should be on you to know.”

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission responded by saying the CPS decision was “consistent with that of the commission, which concluded that the Conservative party’s spending return was incomplete and inaccurate”.

It said the national return contained spending that should have been recorded locally.


Rowena Mason, Anushka Asthana and Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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