A decision is imminent on whether criminal investigations into Tory general election expenses in key target seats will be allowed to proceed. Up to 12 police forces have been probing spending during the 2015 election in conjunction with the Electoral Commission.
The number of seats involved is greater than the Tories overall majority. An MP in any one of the 29 constituencies being probed would be faced with disqualification from office for three years, sparking a by-election, if the rules are found to have been broken.
The Tories won 22 of the key seats including 14 which they took from the Liberal Democrats in the south east of England.
At least four of the police forces, including Kent where the Tories defeated UKIP leader Nigel Farage in his South Thanet stronghold, have applied for an extension to the one-year time limit for bringing criminal proceedings so that investigations can continue beyond the end of May.
The focus is on the Tories’ election BattleBus campaign, whereby hit squads of activists were deployed with the aim of increasing the Tory profile in target seats. It has been claimed that the bus should have been included in the expense records of individual candidates. But the Conservative Party registered the cost of the bus against national election spending, avoiding local constituency limits. The party has already admitted an “administrative error” in failing to include the cost of accommodation for campaigners bussed in to local constituencies but claims that all other spending was “above board” and no different from what other parties did.
But party leader David Cameron has said that any “misdeclaration or things left out” would have to be resolved. He expressed confidence that “we can answer all the questions that are being put to us”.
The issue was first raised in investigations by the Daily Mirror and Channel 4 News into alleged breaches of the Representation of the People Act 1983. The police forces involved include Gloucester, Devon and Cornwall, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire, Kent, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire, Cheshire and West Yorkshire.
Officers have met with staff from the Electoral Commission in the hope of co-ordinating an extension to the deadline to allow inquiries to continue. An eventual change in the law has been mooted to clarify the expense of battle buses in general elections.
* Allegations of expenses irregularities at the 2015 election were made against a Labour MP as Tribune went to press.