The Conservative election expenses saga explained

I don’t care if it’s national or local, it’s blocking my drive. PA/Chris Radburn

Since late January, a story about political party finance and spending in the 2015 UK election (and three by-elections) has been simmering. Now it seems to be boiling over.

For brevity, it’s probably best to concentrate on the allegations related to the 2015 general election, rather than delving into the 2014 by-elections.

This story begins with the dogged, excellent, investigative journalism of Michael Crick and Channel 4 News.

Two types of spending

The crux of the matter is the distinction between two types of spending in British elections – local and national – each of which has different limits.

Local or “candidate spending” is money spent on a specific parliamentary constituency to campaign for a specific candidate. Local spending limits are not uniform but are often around £15,000.

National spend, or “party campaign spending”, is spending that promotes the party more generally across the country.

The national spending limits have never been met at a general election and, in truth, it’s not even very close. The limit at the last general election was £19.5m and the Conservatives came closest, spending £15.6m.

That leaves quite a shortfall. Consequently, there is widespread suspicion, among all parties, that local spend potentially is misreported as national spend, where there is more budgetary room for manoeuvre.

There are entirely legitimate ways to push at these boundaries. Big billboard advertising campaigns, for example, are often targeted at marginal constituencies. Even if they don’t mention the constituency specifically, they can be positioned in places where they will be seen by lots of voters from the area.

What happened here?

The allegations being levelled at the Conservatives concern 33 constituencies (five of which did not go over the constituency spending limit) in which 29 winning Tory MPs are implicated. They mainly centre around whether spending on the Conservative battle bus and hotel rooms for activists have been inaccurately reported.

First, Channel 4 has identified thousands of pounds of hotel bills that have simply not been reported – neither as national nor local spend. This has been accepted by the Conservative party as an “administrative error”.

Second, and more contested, is the battle bus, which transported activists around the country to campaign for the Conservatives ahead of the election.

Channel 4 has uncovered evidence – from canvassing scripts to Facebook posts – which suggests that these activists were campaigning for specific candidates in constituencies, not the Conservative party more generally. Despite this, the battle bus is recorded as national spend.

The Conservatives have faced this allegation head on:

The party always took the view that our national battle bus, a highly-publicised campaign activity, was part of our national return – and we would have no reason not to declare it as such …Other political parties ran similar vehicles which visited different parliamentary constituencies as part of their national campaign.

Liberal Democrat commentator Mark Pack argues that the Conservatives have contradicted themselves on this matter by telling local candidates that all hotel and transport “is accounted for out of central campaign spend” but then that “transport costs for you or your campaigners” are included in local spending.

I’m less convinced by this charge. One can make a distinction between a nationally touring bus and local constituency vehicles – and, of course, “your” local campaigners and “our” national campaigners.

This does serve to demonstrate how fiddly the details are though. And, in truth, how serious you consider the transgression to be probably depends on where you sit on the political spectrum.

With at least ten different police forces, the Electoral Commission and now the High Court involved in these allegations, one must tread very carefully around commenting too much on specifics.

Guilt or innocence (and, indeed, the severity of any charges) will rely on two factors. Whether those in charge of the investigation accept that these buses should, in some circumstances, be classified as local spend and, second, whether there was any conspiracy – i.e. people deliberately omitting, or deliberately misreporting certain spending.

Why haven’t I heard more about this?

There have been allegations from some quarters that certain media outlets (often the BBC) have shied away from reporting these allegations. First, this is simply inaccurate. Though Channel 4 has very much spearheaded this investigation, both the Guardian and the BBC have covered the allegations in detail.

David Cameron, the up and coming candidate for Witney, aboard the bus. PA

And really, accounting just isn’t very sexy. Party funding is a “process-issue” and you don’t tend to hear about it unless something goes seriously wrong – and that hasn’t yet been proven here.

What happens next?

Legally, a long process awaits. It is a criminal offence to fail to declare election spending during a campaign. Charges range from a fine (most likely) to a year in jail (fairly unlikely).

On a wider level though, this episode might change the way elections are run. During my research, I have heard mention of local spending limits largely being disregarded on numerous occasions. If this is the case – and if this story does indeed run and run – the Conservative Battle Bus might only be the beginning.

All kinds of interesting questions arise when you try to separate national and local spend. How do you classify Facebook adverts targeted at marginal constituencies, for example?

It’s worth noting how little scrutiny the Conservatives have faced in parliament over these allegations – aside from a question from the SNP’s Angus Robertson. One might wonder whether the silence from the other parties is indicative of a fight that, frankly, they have little interest in getting involved in.

Indeed, allegations surrounding Labour’s battle bus surfaced just yesterday. This is unlikely to remain a Conservative only issue.

Will those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time poring over party accounts on the Electoral Commission website finally be recognised for doing incisive, sexy, cutting-edge research? Are we about to get the respect we so clearly deserve?

Sadly, I fear, the wait goes on.