Two Conservative MPs – Karl McCartney and William Wragg – have confirmed their files are among those sent to prosecutors after a 10-month police investigation into allegations of electoral fraud.
Both MPs are understood to have been interviewed under caution by police as part of their investigations, which has resulted in 12 forces passing files on up to 20 Conservatives to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for decisions on whether to charge them by the end of June.
Pressure on Conservatives MPs intensified on Thursday after the Electoral Commission imposed a £70,000 fine on the Conservative party and referred its registered treasurer, Simon Day, to the police after finding numerous failures to declare spending on its election.
The investigation was targeted at the national party but had potentially even more serious implications for more than 20 Conservative MPs who are under police investigation for alleged election fraud related to under-declared spending on their local campaigns.
The watchdog concluded that candidates should have partially recorded some items attributed to national spending, including the expenses of activists bussed in to campaign in key marginal seats and a crack team of party officials sent to help organise in South Thanet, the Kent constituency where the Tories were fighting off the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
There are much tighter limits on local spending of between £11,000 to £16,000 per constituency, with intentional breaches of those caps potentially carrying serious fines, jail sentences of up to a year and voiding of the results.
Those are Avon and Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, London, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and West Yorkshire.
Karl McCartney, the Tory MP for Lincoln, became the first to break cover on Thursday to complain he was “exasperated by the partisan and inconsistent actions and announcements by the Electoral Commission who should be politically neutral but are clearly and obviously far from that”.
The MP, whose case has been referred to prosecutors and is understood to have been interviewed by officers under caution, said: “There is an ongoing police investigation and, as such, I would prefer not to comment directly on that as it has yet to be concluded other than to say I know I have done nothing wrong and I acted honestly and properly throughout my election campaign, as did, very importantly, my election agent.”
Wragg, who said he was interviewed for 15 minutes, said: “I was assured, at the time and now, that the battlebus was a national expense and my election agent was instructed by Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ) to treat it as such. Accordingly, it was not declared locally, but was left for the party to declare nationally … I have cooperated fully with Greater Manchester police and I await the decision of the CPS as to whether to progress the case or not.”
Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet, has also been interviewed under police caution although Kent olice has not yet decided whether to refer his case to prosecutors for consideration.
Most Conservative MPs under investigation are refusing to comment on the allegations but have been privately expressing anger that they received incorrect advice from Tory head office that has put them at risk of police prosecution.
“We have an email from central office saying: all battlebus spending will be declared nationally and therefore there is no need to declare it locally. Everybody abided by that. There were a number of senior people in the hierarchy at CCHQ who were copied in on that email,” said one MP who was under investigation.
Another MP, who said he did not know whether he was still under investigation, said there was a feeling that he and colleagues had been “stitched up by incompetence of CCHQ who should have known the rules”.
Conservative party headquarters has so far refused to say who took the decision to register the battlebus spending as a national expense.
Patrick McLoughlin, the Conservative party chairman, refused to comment and batted away the camera of a Sky News reporter who chased him down the street asking for his reaction to the record £70,000 fine.
Theresa May was also confronted about the allegations for the first time in an interview with ITV. She insisted the party had “complied fully with the Electoral Commission” even though the watchdog said the Conservatives had been unreasonable and uncooperative during the inquiry.
“They have imposed a fine on the Conservative Party and the Conservative Party will be meeting that fine, will be paying that fine. In fact there were some issues that the party itself raised with the Electoral Commission through their investigations,” May said.
The party admitted for the first time on Thursday morning also made clear it had “directed” local candidates that the battlebus spending should be recorded as national, not local spending.
The Conservative party said it accepted the Electoral Commission findings but attempted to downplay them as a “reporting error” and claimed “political parties of all colours have made reporting mistakes from time to time”. However, it continued to deny that any local spending returns were wrongly declared, as the party gears up for a battle to defend its MPs and agents from the possibility of police prosecutions.
“CCHQ has always taken the view that its nationally directed battlebus campaign – a highly-publicised and visible activity with national branding – was part of its national return,” a spokesman said.
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