Tory Party Faces Questions Over Unaccounted £millions In 2019 Election
By Adam Bychawski: Researchers from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance were unable to work out what more than a fifth of the Tories’ national spend had actually been used for because of unclear or even missing invoices. The Tory Party is now facing questions over more than £3.6m it spent in the run-up to the 2019 general election without explaining what it paid for.
The Tories were responsible for almost 60% of the unclear invoices in the Electoral Commission’s database for the 2019 election, the team of researchers found.
More than 200 of the 347 local Conservative branches that submitted returns for the general election failed to include any invoices at all for their spending, meaning it was impossible to find out exactly what they spent their money on
The authors of the report analysed the 13,000 invoices filed by political parties to the Electoral Commission as part of their election spending returns. They found that unclear invoices meant it was impossible to determine what 15% of the total spent in the election, £6.6m, was used for.
“If we don’t know how more than £1 in every £10 is being spent in elections, we can’t make reasonable judgements about what is and isn’t a threat to our democracies. And if we can’t do that it makes it much harder to reform our electoral system to address these threats,” Dr Sam Power, one of the authors of the report, told openDemocracy.
Political parties are legally required to submit invoices for any spend over £200 during a general election, explaining what the sum was spent on. The Electoral Commission told openDemocracy it was aware of the Conservative Party breaches but had decided it was “not proportionate” to take any enforcement action.
The report defines an invoice as unclear if it is not possible to reasonably make an informed judgement about the service provided from the invoice alone. It includes invoices that were too blurred or distorted to read, as well as invoices that were missing completely from returns.
While the Tories were responsible for the vast majority of unclear election spending, the authors also found that a fifth (£1.5m) of the Brexit Party’s election spending was unaccounted for. Almost a tenth (£1.1m) of the Labour Party’s spending was unclear.
The report found that even when invoices were included they did not always accurately reflect the services companies provided to political parties.
An invoice submitted by the Conservative Party for a £1.6m contract with CTF Partners Limited, the political consultancy run by Tory election guru Lynton Crosby, was designated “completely unclear” because it gave “exceedingly limited detail about their activity”.
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The Tories categorised the majority of the money given to Crosby’s firm as for “research”, which the report said underplayed the role of the company. Crosby has played a central role in overseeing strategy for several Tory election campaigns.
Boris Johnson received £23,000 in loans and donations from the company just six months before he became prime minister in 2019.
A £700k contract the Tories signed with political consultancy firm Hanbury Strategy was also “completely unclear” because it gave no explanation of what services were provided.
The invoice was simply categorised under “market research/canvassing” but the report found that Hanbury had later boasted of its role in identifying “the voters that helped swing the UK general election” and that its website talked of running “insight-backed campaigns”.
Hanbury, which was co-founded by an ally of Dominic Cummings, was later awarded contracts worth £640,000 without tendered by the government during the pandemic.
The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said: “The Commission reviewed the spending return delivered by the Conservative Party following the 2019 UK general parliamentary election, and is aware that not all required invoices were provided. Having reviewed the compliance of the return in the whole, we decided that it was not proportionate to take enforcement action in relation to those missing invoices.”