WALTER CRONXITE reports on how a letter which may have clinched re-election for Croydon’s highest profile MP might yet become another embarrassment for gaffe-prone Gav*
A book by Conservative MP Gavin Barwell due to be published next week about how he kept hold of his Croydon Central seat at last year’s General Election by a mere 165 votes includes details of a letter he sent to voters from Craig Mackinlay, the Tory at the centre of Channel 4 News allegations over undeclared election expenses.
Mackinlay’s letter to Croydon Central voters, Barwell claims in his book, “clearly had some effect” on swaying the decision of some voters over whether to vote Conservative or for UKIP. In the letter sent by the Barwell campaign, Mackinlay stated that, “I used to be deputy leader of UKIP” and lists the number of occasions he stood for Nigel Farage’s party at elections. No where in the letter to Croydon Central voters did Mackinlay – or Barwell – bother to state that in 2015 he was the Conservative Party candidate in South Thanet, contesting that seat against Farage (and Al Murray).
It is the conduct, and spending, on Mackinlay’s campaign to keep Farage out of the House of Commons which is being investigated by Channel 4 News‘s reporter Michael Crick, and is now subject to examination by the Conservative Party chairman, Lord “Marty” Feldman.
Last night’s broadcast included an old-fashioned, TV interview-on-the-hoof, as a breathless Crick pursued Feldman through Whitehall.
The programme has uncovered evidence of election spending, ahead of the 2014 Clacton by-election and in 2015, which Tory activists claim has not been properly declared as required by law. Last month, the Electoral Commission began a formal investigation as a result of Channel 4 News raising questions about spending by the Conservatives for two hotels in the General Election campaign in South Thanet.
The programme suggests that had campaign spending on hotels in Thanet and in three earlier by-elections been declared properly, the Conservatives will have broken the legal limits that ensure that elections are fair. UKIP were the biggest challengers to the Tories in all four seats.
If the Electoral Commission finds that the Conservatives did break the law in South Thanet, then Craig Macklinlay, Gavin Barwell’s eager letter-writer, might lose his parliamentary seat.
There is no suggestion that any similar spending on hotel bills took place in the hotly contested Croydon Central seat last year.
But Barwell, and the former Tory MP for Croydon South, Richard Ottaway, were both subject of Channel 4 News investigations into their election spending declarations at the 2010 General Election. On that occasion, they got away with their agent, former Croydon councillor Ian Parker, being given a stern talking to and passing off the matter as “an administrative error”.
In Croydon Central in 2015, while UKIP never had any real prospects of winning the seat, Barwell admits in his new book, How To Win A Marginal Seat, that he tried to ensure that every wavering Tory that might be considering voting UKIP needed to be won over. After his former boss, Lord Cashcroft, published a poll of voting intentions in Croydon in November 2014 showing Labour leading by 6 per cent, with the Tories second and UKIP third on 19 per cent, Barwell writes, “There was simply no way I could win with UKIP doing that well.”
The Mackinlay letter was sent to selected Croydon Central residents in the final week before the polls opened. “We decided to do a mailing to Conservative/UKIP waverers and core UKIP supporters (on the doorstep, even some of them were beginning to move our way),” Barwell writes.
During his first five years as an MP, gaffe-prone Gav was warned repeatedly about his correspondence to constituents, including through abuse of the parliamentary portcullis symbol, or the misuse of residents’ personal data, and he was ridiculed for trying to persuade his supporters to draft letters that did not mention David Cameron or the Tory Party.
The Mackinlay letter was, therefore, typical of Barwell’s dissembling approach to the electorate. It deceives through omission.
No where in the letter did Mackinlay come clean and admit that he was a Conservative election candidate. The letter stresses Mackinlay’s UKIP history, and then says: “I’m writing to ask you to vote for your local Conservative candidate, Gavin Barwell, on Thursday…
“If, like me, you’re not happy with the EU and want change, it’s essential that you don’t waste your vote by supporting a candidate that has no chance of winning. Please vote for Gavin Barwell to make sure we have enough MPs in the next parliament who will let the British people decide on our future in Europe,” the Mackinlay letter concluded.
“A number of Conservative/UKIP waverers referred to this letter on polling day, so it clearly had some effect,” Barwell writes in the book.
Inside Croydon‘s loyal reader had previously contacted us about the Mackinlay letter, which they received and have described as a “scam”.
“The imprint (the “legal” bit that tells the recipient who sent the letter) was in such a small font that I had to use a magnifying glass to read it,” they say. “This letter was a last desperate deception from a failing politician that thought the was going to lose his seat.”
It is also claimed that, unusually, these personally addressed letters were not posted with a franking machine used to pay the postage (all declarable as election expenses), but that the envelopes carried postage stamps.
In the end, after sending a letter to UKIP supporters asking for them to support him so that he would help “decide on our future in Europe”, Barwell beat Labour’s Sarah Jones by 165 votes, while UKIP’s vote in Croydon Central collapsed to just 9 per cent.
And in the last month, Barwell has declared that he wants Britain to remain a member of the EU.
* Walter Cronxite even gets a mention in gaffe-prone Gav’s new book. Indeed, the author’s got such a low opinion of the intellect of his readers, he even tries to explain the joke. What a card, eh?
- THIS WEEKEND: Inside Croydon is publishing an exclusive extract from the Barwell book
- NEXT WEEK: We review Barwell’s How To Win A Marginal Seat. We’ve read it, so you don’t have to
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