Spin as they tried, the Conservatives couldn’t disguise the scale of the scandal that is engulfing them over their errors and mistakes in filing election expenses.
At the worst, it could lead to criminal proceedings against senior officials and MPs, the election of Nigel Farage to the House of Commons in a rerun of the hotly contested South Thanet seat, and a significant erosion of Theresa May’s majority in Parliament, and therefore her ability to get legislation through. At best, if it can be termed thus, it will further damage the public’s already low opinion of the political classes. After all, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have also had fines imposed on them by the Electoral Commission.
The action that must be taken against those responsible must not stop at a £70,000 fine. Activists were effectively bussed in to key constituencies to boost local efforts – all with little intention to admit the tactic. To anyone with a passing acquaintance with election law, such activity was plainly wrong. To a cynical mind – and these are never in short supply in Westminster – that would be a small price to pay for a decisive electoral advantage in any election.
That is why criminal charges and appropriate sentencing should be visited upon anyone where the authorities feel it justified. The public deserve no less. The apparent abuse of procedure and the blatant flouting of the spirit and the letter of election rules by political parties suggest a rotten political culture. They treated the law with contempt, and thought there was little if any chance of being detected and, even if they were, the fines would be modest and levied on the party rather than any individuals. Thus, the risk to reputation, wealth and liberty was disregarded.
It is the job of regulators, police and prosecutors now to prove, if needs be, that that assumption was fatally flawed. As with the bankers who escaped with hardly a scratch after they crashed the financial system, the public will be rightly angry if any other crooks similarly evade their just desserts. It is no exaggeration to say these scandals undermine democracy.
As with the revelations about MPs’ expenses almost a decade ago, it is telling that the search for truth about the abuse of election expenses has been driven by the media. Those deeply damaging tales of taxpayers’ money spent on duck houses and moat cleansing were revealed by The Telegraph; this latest scandal has been covered doggedly by Channel 4 News and the indefatigable Michael Crick. Journalists may not enjoy a high reputation among the public, but at least in this case they have rendered the electorate a considerable service. This story is not going away.