Two Conservative MPs, Karl McCartney and William Wragg, have confirmed that files relating to their election expenses are among those sent to prosecutors after a 10-month police investigation into allegations of electoral fraud.
Police are understood to have interviewed both MPs under caution as part of a series of investigations into whether a string of Conservative candidates broke electoral law by breaching local spending limits.
McCartney, the MP for Lincoln, 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.”
Pressure on Conservatives MPs intensified on Thursday as the Electoral Commission imposed a £70,000 fine on the party and referred its registered treasurer, Simon Day, to the police after finding numerous failures to declare spending on its 2015 election campaign.
The investigation was targeted at the national party, but has potentially even more serious implications for more than 20 Tories whose spending on their local campaigns is under police investigation.
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 and £16,000 per constituency, with intentional breaches of those caps potentially carrying serious fines, imprisonment and the voiding of results.
The CPS confirmed this week that it had received files from the Avon and Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, London, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and West Yorkshire police forces.
Tory MPs under investigation include the former cabinet minister Anna Soubry, Neil Carmichael, Scott Mann, David Nuttall, Kevin Foster, James Heappey and Marcus Fysh, but they have not confirmed whether their files are among those passed to the CPS.
In a sign of the mounting political tensions, McCartney said 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”.
Wragg, the MP for Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester, said police had interviewed him for 15 minutes. “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,” he said.
“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.”
Three Tory MPs – Mann, Heappey and Fysh – released virtually identical statements saying they would prefer not to comment other than to say they had “done nothing wrong and acted honestly and properly throughout the election campaign” and were happy to cooperate with the police investigation.
Nuttall, the MP for Bury North, told the Manchester Evening News: “We were told [the bus tour] was a national spend. All candidates were told that. My experience, over many years and many elections, was that was the way it was dealt with.”
Foster, who represents Torbay, told Devon Live: “We have been more than happy to cooperate with the investigation and I look forward to this process being brought forward to a conclusion. I just want to get on with doing the job I was elected to do.”
Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet, was also interviewed under police caution, but Kent police have not yet decided whether to refer his case to prosecutors for consideration.
Several Conservative MPs under investigation have privately expressed 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 under investigation.
Another, 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 [the] incompetence of CCHQ, who should have known the rules”.
A third said Conservative party headquarters had been too slow to admit that decisions about allocating the cost of the battlebus were taken centrally.
“They have been utterly useless,” the MP said. “They should have been providing solicitors and assistance and statements. I’ve had colleagues on the phone to me in tears. They could have done this a year ago … It’s not dishonest, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s plain, simple, total incompetence. It’s absolutely disgraceful, and there are no excuses.”
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 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 £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, though the watchdog said it 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 that it had directed local candidates to record battlebus spending as national rather than local.
It 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”. 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.