WALTER CRONXITE reports on how the forces of law and order have decided not to investigate a government minister
It seems that the police haven’t bothered to read Gavin Barwell’s election memoir.
They will not be unique in that respect, although at least they would have been paid for their efforts if they had bothered.
This week, in a short statement, the Metropolitan Police detective co-ordinating the wide-ranging, national investigation into allegations of election fraud, said that “on this occasion there will be no further action taken due to insufficient evidence” in the case of Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central.
The Met is running the investigation into serious allegations involving more than 30 Tory MPs from 2015. The Tories have a working government majority in parliament of 16, so potentially it would take only eight cases of alleged fraud to be well founded and prompt by-elections in the seats in question for Theresa May to have no majority.
The investigation into Barwell’s election spending began in April. In July, he was promoted to a position as Housing Minister in Theresa May’s government.
The 2015 campaign was the second successive General Election in which Barwell’s extravagant spending was brought into question. After the 2010 election, Barwell’s agent, Ian Parker, was hauled before a judge for a stern talking to, over failure to declare spending on office rentals, though no further action was taken.
On this occasion, the police received a complaint suggesting that the MP may have broken the law by under-declaring his campaign spending. Under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 1983, inaccurate declarations of election expenses are illegal and can attract a range of punishments, including jail time.
Investigations led by Channel 4 News and the Daily Mirror into spending on the Tory Battle Bus and hotel bills prompted Conservative Central Office to concede that there may have been breaches of the strict limits on election spending in other constituencies. In those cases, the Tories blamed “an administrative error” – a similar form to the excuse offered up by Parker, on behalf of Barwell and his erstwhile Croydon colleague, “Sir” Tricky Dicky Ottaway, five years ago.
This time round, the complaints over Barwell’s election spending once again revolved around the amount he declared as having paid for his campaign office rent. Also under scrutiny was the amount Barwell claims to have spent on his carpet-bombing of Croydon Central with leaflets.
Given that Barwell clung on to his parliamentary seat by just 165 votes, such otherwise esoteric issues as spending on leaflets can be seen as being far more critical to the outcome.
The law permits election candidates to spend only limited amounts during what are called the “long campaign” and the “short campaign”, with those periods defined (for the 2015 General Election) as running from December 14 2014 to the day before a person is formally nominated as a candidate (the long campaign), and from the date of nomination to election day (the short campaign).
The Electoral Commission defines candidate spending as “any expenses incurred, whether on goods, services, property or facilities, for the purposes of the candidate’s election during the regulated period”. The spending limits for Croydon Central, determined by the number of constituents, were £35,288.62 for the long campaign and £13,287.48 for the short campaign.
In Barwell’s recently published election memoir, he boasts of campaigning from June 2014 – that is, well before the “long campaign” required him to account for his expenses – and of staging “the glitziest launch of an individual constituency campaign British politics has ever seen” in September 2014.
In July 2014, he had the support of a visit of around a hundred activists through the now notorious Tory “Road Trip” organisation. None of the spending on these events will have had to be declared under election law.
In his book, Barwell writes that he managed to raise £90,000 for his campaign fund: nearly twice the amount which the law allowed him to spend in the long and the short campaigns combined.
“We were determined to deliver more literature than Labour,” Barwell boasts in his book.
Barwell’s election accounts claim he spent a total of £13,035.74 during the short campaign – just £251 inside the limit.
But in a closely fought marginal seat, fine margins may have become a little blurred for gaffe-prone Gav.
In his expenses return, Barwell claims that he did not manage to deliver all the leaflets that his campaign had printed. He has therefore declared a reduced amount of spending, helping to bring his spending just inside the legal limit.
It also presents anyone wishing to challenge Barwell’s accounting with a problem: how do you prove a negative? How can it be proved that Barwell failed to deliver the leaflets that he says he did not deliver?
In this case, it should have been straightforward, even for the Sherlock Holmeses working on the MPs’ expenses fraud causes, because a few months after the dust had settled on the General Election, and with a good deal of hubris, Barwell produced another version of the election, in his book, with his first-hand account of events which contradicts the official accounts he and his agent signed off and submitted.
In his official expense returns, Barwell claims that a batch of 50,000 leaflets (invoiced on April 15, 2015) were only “85 per cent delivered”.
Yet in How to Win a Marginal Seat, Barwell writes that with the help of 200 activists, “…we delivered a leaflet through every one of the just under 50,000 letterboxes in Croydon Central in just over three hours”.
Who to believe? Barwell? Or Barwell?
In the book, Barwell repeats his claim of delivering all 50,000 leaflets, “to every home in the constituency on the morning of Saturday 18 April” in the appendix, accompanied by pictures of the front and back of the leaflet in question.
Elsewhere in his official returns, there are another half-dozen leaflets that Barwell claims were not all delivered. So although his campaign will have had to pay its printers’ bills in full, he declared a lesser spending figure on his election accounts.
Taken together, the full costs of all the leaflets will have taken Barwell well over his legal spending limit.
Yet none of this, apparently, was enough for the Boys in Blue. Nothing to see here, guv’nor, move along quietly please…
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