Expenses row

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The Conservatives have been fined £70,000 for breaking election expenses rules.

Why have the Conservatives been fined?

The party failed to accurately report how much it spent on its 2015 general election campaign and on three by-elections.

What’s wrong with that?

The party was essentially accused of using its national party muscle to get local candidates elected – something that’s not allowed under the rules.

Parties have to stick to strict spending limits to try to ensure a level playing field. By under-reporting how much had been spent, the Electoral Commission said there was a “realistic prospect” that Conservative candidates gained a financial advantage over their rivals.

Did the party deliberately cheat?

The commission is not taking a view on this. It has reported the Conservative treasurer until April 2016, Simon Day, to the Metropolitan Police, which will look at whether he “knowingly or recklessly made a false declaration”. The Conservatives say the misreported spending figures were an “administrative error” and not evidence of a conspiracy.

Don’t all the parties do this?

The Liberal Democrats were fined £20,000 in December for undeclared general election spending. Three months earlier, Labour was fined the same amount for not fully declaring its election spending, including more than £7,000 on the so-called Ed Stone, on which then leader Ed Miliband carved six election pledges.

That’s one reason why the main opposition parties are not making more noise about the Conservative fine – they are all guilty, to some extent, of breaking the rules.

What can be done to stop it?

The Electoral Commission says it does not have sufficient powers to prevent overspending. It has warned that “there is a risk that some political parties might come to view the payment of these fines as a cost of doing business”.

Why was the Conservatives’ fine so high?

It is made up of three separate fines.

What about criminal prosecutions?

The Electoral Commission can only investigate national party spending and does not have the power to bring criminal prosecutions. Separately, 12 police forces have asked the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider charges over election expenses.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg says senior Conservative sources think it’s unlikely the reporting mistakes will reach the hurdle for criminal prosecution.

The CPS has to believe there is a good chance of a successful conviction, and senior Tories don’t believe in most of the cases that’s likely.

Will these elections have to be rerun?

It’s technically possible but unlikely. If an MP is jailed, they are disqualified from sitting in the Commons and a by-election has to be held. But it is their agent, who normally handles the paperwork, who would be more likely to find themselves in the dock over false reporting of election expenses, which carries a maximum sentence of 12 months.

An election court could declare the election void but the judge would have to decide whether the sums involved were enough to materially affect the result.

What did the Conservatives spend the money on?

The Electoral Commission’s report, which was prompted by a Channel 4 News investigation, focuses on three by-elections – Clacton, Newark and Rochester and Strood, all seats where the Conservatives were facing a strong challenge from UKIP.

It also looked at the Tories’ successful campaign to prevent then UKIP leader Nigel Farage winning the South Thanet seat at the general election. It focused on a team of national officials who arrived in the area from London and checked into a Premier Inn hotel in Margate.

The Conservatives argued that they had, unusually, based their national anti-UKIP campaign in the Kent constituency but the watchdog found that a proportion of the party’s national spending actually went on helping local candidate Craig Mackinlay and should have been declared in his election return – Nigel Farage is also facing calls for his party’s spending in South Thanet to be investigated.

Separately, the commission investigated spending on the Conservatives’ general election battle bus, which ferried young activists around the country.

The commission found no evidence to suggest the party had funded the Battlebus2015 campaign to promote the success of individual candidates.

But it said there was a “clear and inherent risk” that activists on the coaches “might engage in candidate campaigning” and that “it is apparent that candidate campaigning did take place” during the tour.

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