Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that Theresa May called the snap election in part because she feared that numerous Tory MPs would be prosecuted for fraud over their election expenses.
Speaking at the Scottish TUC conference in Aviemore, Sturgeon implied the Conservatives may have “bought” the last election, referring to a police investigation into the party’s election expenses in the 2015 campaign.
Departing from her published script, Sturgeon said the prime minister called the surprise election last week “for one purpose and one purpose only – to strengthen the grip of the Tory party and crush dissent and opposition … and to do so before possible criminal prosecutions for alleged expenses fraud at the last election catches up with her.
“And whatever else happens in this election we should not allow the Tory party to escape the accountability for any misdemeanours that may have led to them buying the last general election.”
The Crown Prosecution Service is considering reports from 12 police forces on alleged breaches of election spending limits by up to 20 Tory MPs. No one in the party has so far been charged with any offence, yet some critics believe May in part wanted to secure a heftier majority to guard against her current working majority of 17 seats being chipped away by byelection defeats.
This is difficult ground for Sturgeon: two former Scottish National party MPs have been sitting as independents after police launched inquiries into their financial affairs, cutting the SNP’s strength at Westminster from 56 to 54 MPs.
Michelle Thomson, in Edinburgh West, and Natalie McGarry, in Glasgow East, were barred from standing in June’s election by the SNP’s national executive committee on Saturday after being forced to leave the party.
Both women deny any wrongdoing but McGarry has been charged with fraud, and Thomson named in a police report to prosecutors in connection with alleged mortgage frauds, but has not been charged. The SNP is searching for fresh candidates in both seats and the Lib Dems believe they have a strong chance of winning back Edinburgh West as a result of Thomson’s suspension.
A Conservative party spokeswoman said Sturgeon’s claims, linked to expenses costs for its 2015 election battlebus, were misplaced and ill-founded. “MPs in constituencies visited by the battlebus would have no reason to consider whether it should be included in their local return; they were directed that the bus would be visiting as part of [Conservative HQ] national spending,” she said.
“The ongoing investigations relate to national spending by CCHQ. The national party will continue to co-operate with the police and other authorities so that the matter can be resolved as soon as possible.”
With the Scottish election campaign gathering pace, Sturgeon clashed with the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had spoken three hours earlier at the STUC conference, over her claims that only the SNP were an effective opposition to the Tories at Westminster.
In a text released before his first Scottish campaign event in Dunfermline, Fife, on Monday night, Corbyn said the SNP were misleading voters by claiming they were genuine progressives. He said the SNP government in Edinburgh had presided over increasing poverty, a growing crisis in care for the elderly and worsening attainment in schools.
“There will be no deals with the SNP,” he said. “Why vote for a poor imitation that has overseen an increase in child poverty and the biggest increase since devolution of those people classified as poor despite being at work, when you can have the real thing in the progressive Labour party.
“Remember this is not a referendum, it’s a general election and only Labour can form another government and offer an alternative that will transform the lives of Scots.”
With opinion polls at the weekend giving the Tories up to 33% support in Scotland, far outstripping Labour’s support, Sturgeon told STUC delegates the election contest north of the border was a straight fight between the SNP and Conservatives.
She told reporters at the event that Corbyn had minimal chance of winning in June, but said Labour’s confusion over whether it would replace Trident or not “gets to the heart of Labour’s lack of credibility as an alternative government”.
Sturgeon said: “The SNP opposes Trident, not just in principle, but at a time when our public services and the vulnerable in our society are under so much pressure, spending tens of billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction is the wrong choice.
“Labour should have the guts to simply say that. It’s what we’re told Jeremy Corbyn believes so he should have the courage of his convictions and say it.”