Tory MP ‘overspent on campaign in bid to end Farage’s Parliamentary ambitions’

A Tory MP spent more than double the legal limit on his 2015 general election campaign in a bid to end Nigel Farage’s Parliamentary ambitions forever, a court has heard.

Craig Mackinlay, 52, along with his election agent Nathan Gray, 29, and Marion Little, 63, who is said to have run the campaign, are accused of deliberately submitting “woefully inaccurate” expenditure returns.

Declared spending on the campaign came in under the strict £52,000 limit set for the MP’s South Thanet constituency.

But prosecutors allege up to £66,600 spent on staffing, accommodation, advertising and other costs for Mackinlay’s campaign was not declared.

Their trial at Southwark Crown Court heard on Tuesday that the Conservative Party put extra resources into the campaign to win the seat in Kent on May 7.

Prosecutor Aftab Jafferjee QC told jurors it became a “two-horse race”, which was won by Mackinlay with a majority of around 2,800 in an electorate of 70,000.

“In those pre-referendum days, Ukip were on the rise and the threat perceived by the Conservative Party to their share of the vote only intensified in the lead-up to the 2015 election,” he said.

“When Nigel Farage announced that he would step down as leader of Ukip if he failed to win the South Thanet seat, it was clear that this was not going to be any ordinary election campaign.”

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage (Gareth Fuller/PA)

He said expenditure is “tightly regulated” over two stages – a short and a long campaign – and it is the job of a Parliamentary candidate and their election agent to ensure limits are “scrupulously observed”.

“Spending limits apply equally to every prospective Parliamentary candidate of every political hue across the UK and those limits seek to ensure integrity and public confidence in the most obvious example of this country’s democratic process, namely a general election,” the prosecutor continued.

In South Thanet the limit for the expenditure was just over £37,000, while for the short campaign it was just over £15,000, and declarations made by Mackinlay and Gray came in below the limit, at £32,661 and £14,833 respectively.

“It is the prosecution case that neither of these declarations as to expenditure … were true, and by some considerable margin, though that does not matter,” Mr Jafferjee said.

“Each of these three defendants were complicit in advancing those false declarations.

“In addition, the signature purporting to be Nathan Gray’s on the long return was not his. He had permitted someone to forge his signature.”

Jurors were told up to £14,600 in costs were undeclared in the long return and up to £52,000 in the short return but prosecutors accept that the figures could go down.

Declarable expenses include the costs involved to get the candidate elected, such as printing of leaflets, putting up posters and staff costs, such as the employment of Gray as an election agent, Mr Jafferjee explained.

The court heard there was a “constant awareness” of how close the campaign was to reaching its budgets.

An email dated February 18 2015 from Tony Salter, chairman of the Conservative campaign team for South Thanet, to Gray said: “We’re getting perilously close to hitting our legal limits, both for the long and short campaign.”

The court heard staff, including Little, were drafted in from Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) along with volunteers, such as Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy, while high-profile figures such as Boris Johnson visited the constituency.

Little wrote an email in which she described herself as being “marooned” in South Thanet and her involvement in Mackinlay’s campaign is said to have been “hour by hour”, the jury heard.

“Marion Little went on to effectively manage Craig Mackinlay’s election campaign so that he would be elected and Nigel Farage would be defeated,” said Mr Jafferjee.

“This was not just what is known as a marginal seat, but it was a contest which could see off Nigel Farage’s Parliamentary ambitions forever.”

The court heard Little told police she was not working for Mackinlay but carrying out national campaign work.

She now claims she went to Kent to prevent the election of Ukip and the benefit to Mackinlay was “collateral” to that, jurors were told.

The prosecutor said Mackinlay will blame his “lack of experience and unawareness” of what Little and others were doing.

Gray’s defence will similarly highlight his inexperience, stating he was “marginalised” by the arrival of Little, and that he has “no idea” how his forged signature came about, the court heard.

But Mr Jafferjee said: “It is the prosecution case each of these defendants involved themselves in a deliberate under-declaration and non-declaration of election expenses.”

He added: “Far from being ‘complete and accurate’, the returns were woefully incomplete and woefully inaccurate. And most importantly, deliberately so.”

Mackinlay, from Ramsgate, Kent, denies two charges of making a false election expenses declaration under the Representation of the People Act 1983; Gray, of Hawkhurst, Kent, denies one charge of making a false election expenses declaration and a further charge of using a false instrument under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981; Little, of Ware, Hertfordshire, denies three counts of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007.

They are all on unconditional bail and the trial, which is expected to last until December, continues on Wednesday.

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