Theresa May’s chief of staff was among the advisers based in the key battleground seat of South Thanet, where the Electoral Commission found the Conservatives appear to have understated spending on their local campaign against the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
Nick Timothy was not accused of any wrongdoing and would have played no role in the recording of campaign spending, but Downing Street has been dragged into the controversy because the Electoral Commission found at least some of the expenses of party staff involved in the campaign should have been recorded as local spending rather than national spending.
Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative candidate who won the seat, has been interviewed by police over allegations his return may have understated the true amount spent on the campaign in breach of a strict limit of about £15,000 for the constituency, which he and the party strongly deny.
Local spending limits of about £11,000 to £16,000 per constituency – depending on its size – are much tighter than national limits that run into many millions, with strict penalties for breaking the rules that range from fines to imprisonment and voiding of results.
Concerns about the Conservative party’s spending in South Thanet were first raised by a Channel 4 News investigation in 2016. Timothy, along with two other May advisers – Stephen Parkinson and Chris Brannigan – were among the crack team of Tory advisers working from South Thanet, but their expenses were not recorded in Mackinlay’s local spending returns.
Other party staff working in the seat for part of the time included Henry Macrory, the former head of press at Conservative party headquarters, and Marion Little, a campaigner organiser.
The Electoral Commission report does not mention any names but it highlighted the role played in South Thanet by a team of national officials based in the constituency during the 2015 general election, including a senior campaigns officer, a senior press adviser and two political advisers.
The Conservatives argued that they had, unusually, based their national anti-Ukip campaign in the Kent constituency because of the fact that Ukip’s national campaign was also there.
However, the commission found that a proportion of the party’s national spending actually related to the effort to secure the election of the local candidate, Mackinlay, and should have been declared in his election return.
The spending included £15,641 for rooms in the Royal Harbour hotel in Ramsgate, which was declared as part of the party’s national spending return. The commission also found that the party failed to declare a further £3,809.03 in hotel bills for the Premier Inn in Margate, just outside the constituency. The Conservatives blamed “simple human error” but the commission said that was not a “reasonable excuse”.
The commission said Conservative party political advisers had played key roles in determining the Tory candidate’s campaign messages and in drafting campaign material “promoting Mr Mackinlay’s electoral success”.
It found a “number of examples” of them commenting or advising the wording of Mackinlay’s campaign message and digital content, including a comment from one adviser on a YouTube video the other had created.
It stated: “Thanks ... This is ok as far as it goes BUT why are we not trying to convey the messages better? Anybody can stand in sandwich saying traffic is bad. The point is that [C]raig brings cabinet ministers here and can get things done … Every time we communicate without the messages we are at best wasting our time and at worse losing votes.”
The party also listed several other individuals as being part of the team, including volunteers providing further support, such as assisting with national tours and events held in Kent, attending Ukip rallies and events, and monitoring the activities of Farage.