Tories denounce ‘malicious claims’ over battle bus expenses

CPS says there is insufficient evidence to prosecute politicians and party officials

Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron joins pupils for a cookery class at Lewannick Primary School in Cornwall on Wednesday, where he was campaigning in the general election. He accused the Conservatives of driving “a battle bus and horses” through the spirit of the electoral law. Photograph:  Yui Mok/PA Wire

Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron joins pupils for a cookery class at Lewannick Primary School in Cornwall on Wednesday, where he was campaigning in the general election. He accused the Conservatives of driving “a battle bus and horses” through the spirit of the electoral law. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

 

The British Conservatives have alleged they are the target of “false and malicious claims” after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said it would not bring charges over use of the “battle bus” in 2015, which broke rules on election expenses.

The CPS said that, although expenses returns were inaccurate in some constituencies in 2015, there was insufficient evidence to prosecute politicians and party officials.

“Although there is evidence to suggest the returns may have been inaccurate, there is insufficient evidence to prove to the criminal standard that any candidate or agent was dishonest,” its head of Special Crime, Nick Vamos, said.

The CPS is still investigating the Conservative campaign in South Thanet, where Craig Mackinlay defeated former Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

Conservative Party chairman Patrick McLaughlin condemned the investigation as politically motivated, claiming his party’s candidates and officials had been exonerated.

‘Unfounded complaints’

“These were politically motivated and unfounded complaints that have wasted police time. We are glad that this matter is finally resolved,” he said.

“A number of false and malicious claims continue to be spread on the internet. People should be aware that making false claims about a candidate’s personal character and conduct is an electoral offence, as well as being defamatory.”

Last March, the Electoral Commission fined the Conservatives £70,000 for failing to report accurately their spending in a number of constituencies during the 2015 general election. The commission asked the CPS to investigate whether criminal offences took place under the Representation of the People Act.

The CPS found the party breached spending limits by declaring the cost of sending “battle buses” to marginal constituencies as national rather than local expenditure. But there was insufficient evidence to suggest that candidates or local officials knew they were breading the rules or had acted dishonestly.

Refused to apologise

Prime minister Theresa May on Wednesday refused to apologise for the Conservatives’ actions in 2015, insisting they had done nothing wrong.

“We have always reported expenses according to the rules. What the CPS found very clearly in those cases that they looked at is that local spending had been properly reported and candidates had done nothing wrong. There was an error made in the national return for the general election 2015,” she said.

 Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn expressed surprise at the decision not to press charges, while Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the Conservatives had “driven a battle bus and horses” through the spirit of the electoral law.

“Quite clearly the Electoral Commission is independent, the Crown Prosecution Service is independent, the Director of Public Prosecutions is independent, they have to make a judgment on it,” Mr Corbyn said.

“But our election laws must be enforced and must be adhered to, there are strict spending limits for a reason, so that money can’t buy power - only votes in the ballot box should be able to get power.”

Cloud of suspicion

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said the CPS’s decision had not lifted the cloud of suspicion from above the Conservatives.

“I think there are still really big questions for the Tories to answer in the light of the CPS announcement today. Because what they’ve said is that there’s evidence that election returns may have been inaccurate. They just don’t have the evidence of the criminal intent that would have enabled them to prosecute,” 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.”