A Channel 4 News investigation exposing election expenses failings by the Conservative Party came about thanks to a slow news day for chief political correspondent Michael Crick.
The Tories were yesterday fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for “significant failures” over the reporting of their campaign spending during the 2015 general election.
The Conservative party claims this was due to an “administrative error”. Police are understood to be looking at whether the actions were deliberate.
Crick told Press Gazette: “After the general election in 2015, in January of last year [the Electoral Commission] published the accounts of political parties together with invoices and everything – it’s a legal requirement, it all goes up on their website – and I happened to not be very busy that day so I spent an afternoon just dipping in and out seeing what I could find.
“I came across this bill for £15,000 for a hotel in Ramsgate [in Kent] which [the Conservatives] were claiming was one of their national expenses and I was thinking ‘bollocks’ that’s not a national expense that’s all to do with the Thanet campaign [against then UKIP leader Nigel Farage] where the limit was £15,016.
“So if they had put the hotel down as they should have done they would have spent the whole limit on just the one hotel. And then it all flowed from that really and we took another look at the by-elections.”
He added: “Most days I wouldn’t have had the time to look through the Electoral Commission accounts because I would have had to be doing something else on Brexit or whatever the issue was at the time.
“It was just a stroke of luck perhaps to go through and notice these accounts and then we found out who was staying in the rooms and we discovered it was Nick Timothy, who then of course was only Theresa May’s adviser at the Home Office, and Stephen Parkinson who are now two of her closest advisers in Downing Street.”
The Channel 4 News investigation has been running for a year and involved a team of six, but Crick says he has been interested in how politicians “hide elections expenses and get round the limits” for 33 years.
The broadcaster said the Daily Mail and the BBC’s Daily Politics show had been good at picking up the story – “but not really the rest of the BBC”- which wasn’t widely covered by the media.
“I think it’s one of those areas where other political journalists don’t really touch it,” said Crick.
“There’s a sort of a view that ‘we all know the politicians bake their election expenses, it doesn’t really matter’ they have a good laugh about it a bit like they used to with parliamentary expenses.”
But he added: “It’s important because a) it’s the law and politicians shouldn’t be breaking the law, and b) [the campaign spending limit] is to create a level playing field so that local campaigns are fair and that people can’t buy elections and that we’re not America and I think everybody subscribes to that.”
Picture: Channel 4