EXCL 'Confused' spending rules put elections at risk from 'hostile' states, cleared Tory MP warns
Britain’s "abstract and confused" election spending rules are leaving campaigns open to sabotage by a "hostile state", a Conservative MP cleared of offences after a lengthy legal battle has warned.
South Thanet MP Craig MacKinlay - who was last month cleared of two counts of knowingly signing false election declarations during his 2015 fight against Ukip leader Nigel Farage - said the current rules treated all candidates as "potential criminals".
And, writing for the House magazine, he urged all parties to consider an overhaul of the "unfit for purpose" Electoral Commission watchdog.
"My call now is that never again should candidates and agents face the prospect of criminal conviction based upon abstract and confused law," he said.
The case against Mr McKinlay had centred on claims that more than £60,000 of hotel costs and other spending by Tory activists and party workers in 2015 were logged as national rather than local spending in order to avoid strict electoral finance limits.
But the South Thanet MP said an interpretation of the rules handed down by the Supreme Court ahead of his trial - making clear that the limits include any spending deemed to be of "use" to a candidate - could leave campaigns at risk of sabotage from "ne-er do wells".
A spokesperson for the Commission pushed back at Mr McKinlay's claims, however, telling PoliticsHome that it did not "believe that the events and actions that led to this trial and the verdict arose from confusion over the law".
Instead, the watchdog urged ministers to press ahead with a string of changes to the law that have already been drawn up.
The Conservative MP wrote: "The Supreme Court ruling makes us all potential criminals.
"It means that a ne’er do well, a wealthy political opponent perhaps, could, for instance, hire an aircraft with a towed banner promoting a candidate.
"The cost, let’s say £15,000 – the entire short campaign spending limit. Because it has benefit to the candidate, i.e. has 'use', even though it was not wanted, nor authorised, will form part of the declarable election expenditure and the budget would be bust.
"The usual campaign expenditure properly authorised – the leaflets, adboards etc would have simply blown the budget and be unlawful overspend, the return would be an illegal one, rendering the candidate liable to criminal conviction and the election made void."
He added: "Another potential example – a foreign, perhaps a hostile state could run Facebook advertising supporting or denigrating a candidate.
"The benefit to the candidate would be there, the ‘use’ has occurred. Two problems: would it be possible to extract from Facebook the cost of the unwanted adverts?
"Secondly, if that impossible task has borne fruit, the election return would have to account for an illegal foreign donation as part of the double entry of expenditure matched with donations. An instant double illegality.”
The MP meanwhile used his piece for the House to hit out at both the media and prosecutors for creating "three months of uncertainty, pressure and stress on myself and family" that he said had left him facing professional ruin.
And, taking direct aim at the Electoral Commission, Mr McKinlay said: "My call is now that all political parties come together to create coherent, understandable law and we need to consider the status of the Electoral Commission which is, in my view unfit for purpose."
Mr McKinlay was cleared by a jury at Southwark Crown Court earlier this month.
However, senior Conservative staffer Marion Little - who had helped to run the 2015 election campaign - was found guilty of two counts of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007.
The judge in the case said Ms Little - who was handed a suspended sencence - had presented Mr McKinlay with falsified documents he had signed in "good faith not knowing what she had done".
"No-one can know whether her misconduct had any effect on the outcome of that election but she plainly intended that it would," he added.
In a statement, the Electoral Commission told PoliticsHome: "Nothing at the South Thanet trial points to Mr Mackinlay’s candidate spending return being accurate. Rather, all indications are that significant spending, in excess of the lawful spending limit, was not included.
"The jury found that Marion Little, a senior member of Conservative HQ, had deliberately enabled the exceeded campaign spending limit and 'created dishonest documents to hide what she had done'.
"In his sentencing remarks, the judge Mr Justice Edis made clear that these offences were committed deliberately and knowingly and were not honest mistakes resulting from confusion or misleading guidance.
"In fact, the judge commended the Commission’s guidance for its clarity. It is vital that offences under electoral law are properly investigated and we hope the outcome of this case will deter others from committing such offences at future electoral events."
On Mr McKinlay's calls for an overhaul of the law, a spokeserson for the watchdog said: "Following the trial, many have called for electoral reform to ensure the law is clear and easy to understand. We agree that electoral reform is urgently needed.
"We do not, however, believe that the events and actions that led to this trial and the verdict arose from confusion over the law. We have limited scope to make changes ourselves, but have spent the last six months consulting with a wide range of MPs and political parties on new Codes of Practice for parliament’s approval, to provide even more clarity about reporting election spending.
"For the Government’s part, we call on them to implement the wide ranging recommendations made by the Law Commission to modernise electoral law. Now is the time to take this forward, before our system is further tested at future electoral events, scheduled or otherwise."