Tory Party official who falsified expenses ‘carried away’ by bid to beat Farage
A senior Conservative Party official who falsified election expenses was “carried away by her conviction” that defeating then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage was an “overwhelmingly important political objective”, a judge has said.
Marion Little, 63, was convicted in the trial of Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, who was acquitted of breaking electoral rules in his 2015 South Thanet campaign against Mr Farage.
Qualified accountant Mr Mackinlay described the prosecution as “nearly three years of pure hell” and said he had “extreme concerns” about the clarity of election law after the trial concluded at Southwark Crown Court on Wednesday.
“I await a statement from the Electoral Commission, the CPS and Kent Police as to how they justify millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in pursuing me in a political show trial,” he said.
Prosecutors said more than £60,000 in staffing, hotels and advertising went undeclared in the battle for the Kent constituency, with Little said to have effectively run the Conservative campaign for the seat.
Little, who has worked for the party since 1974, was handed a nine-month suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay £5,000 towards the “very substantial” prosecution costs.
The trial judge Mr Justice Edis said the only reason she was not going to prison immediately was because she is caring for her husband, who is gravely ill with cancer.
Her conviction came after the jury was told “the law was simply abandoned” as the Tories set out to ensure victory and fend off the challenge of Mr Farage.
Little’s offending was enabled in part by an “inadequate level of supervision of her work” by the central Conservative Party headquarters, the judge said, which he described as having “a culture of convenient self-deception and lack of clarity about what was permissible in law and what was not”.
He made clear that the evidence showed it was Little alone who was aware of the specific deceptions taking place.
“Marion Little acted dishonestly by preparing returns she knew were neither completed nor accurate,” Mr Justice Edis said.
“I am quite satisfied that of those who worked on Mr Mackinlay’s campaign, she was the author and origin of this falsehood.
“In short, she created false documents designed to show that Mr Mackinlay had been elected according to law, when he had not.
“Neither he nor Mr Gray, the agent, knew what she had done and both trusted her to prepare honest returns and intended to provide truthful and complete returns of the expenses.”
He added: “This placed them at grave risk of conviction and is a significant aggravating feature in her case.”
The judge added that Little was so seasoned in the Tory Party that she was “able to say that she has been a friend to prime ministers and other very senior political figures”.
Wearing spectacles, a pearl necklace and a black top with a long black skirt, Little nodded and thanked the judge after his remarks.
Election agent Nathan Gray, 29, from Hawkhurst, Kent, was earlier acquitted of making a false election expenses declaration.
Mr Mackinlay’s election victory could have been declared void had the true circumstances been known, prosecutors said.
But a jury acquitted him of two charges of knowingly making a false election expenses declaration under the Representation of the People Act 1983 after deliberating for 53 hours and 29 minutes, having retired on December 5.
Speaking outside the court, Mr Mackinlay said the case had been a “dreadful time”, but thanked the people of South Thanet and those who had supported him.
“They knew I was charged with these offences just six days before the election of 2017 and they still supported me,” he said.
“They supported me and I am going to fight even harder for them in the future.”
Mr Farage told the Press Association: “This verdict shows that there are no election rules for the big parties in British politics, they can wilfully overspend without any consequences.”
The court heard South Thanet was considered a key seat in the 2015 general election as the Conservatives fought against the increasingly popular Ukip.
Mr Mackinlay won in 2015 with a majority of around 2,800 from an electorate of 70,000 and was re-elected to Parliament in 2017 just a week after he was charged.
The prosecution case centred around claims that hotel costs and other expenditure for activists and party workers were recorded as national election spending rather than local, to ensure that strict spending limits for individual candidates were not breached.
During the campaign, South Thanet was visited by a number of high-profile Tory figures, including Theresa May, George Osborne, Boris Johnson and former footballer Sol Campbell.
Declared spending came in under the £52,000 limit set for the constituency, but prosecutors claimed more than £60,000 was not declared.
Mr Mackinlay, from Ramsgate, had told jurors his aides had been cautious over the election budget, fearing a challenge by Mr Farage.
Little, 63, of Ware in Hertfordshire, was found guilty of two counts of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007 but cleared of a third count.