Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay arrives at Southwark Crown Court in London with his wife Kati this morning ahead of the verdict
Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay today told of his ‘three years of pure hell’ after he was acquitted of falsifying his election expenses for his 2015 campaign against then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
But senior Tory party official Marion Little, who was said to have effectively run the campaign to fend off the challenge from Mr Farage, was found guilty of two counts of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007.
Little’s conviction at Southwark Crown Court came after the jury was told ‘the law was simply abandoned’ as the Tories set out to ensure victory over Mr Farage.
Little was given a suspended sentence – avoiding an immediate jail term from the judge because she is caring for her husband, who is gravely ill with cancer.
South Thanet MP Mr Mackinlay, 52, had been accused of failing to declare more than £60,000 spent on staffing, hotels and advertising. Today, he marked his not guilty verdict with a tweet carrying the simple message: ‘#Notguilty.’
Outside court, he added: ‘It has been nearly three years of pure hell, for my family particularly. But I have got real thanks for the people of South Thanet. They knew I was charged with these offences just six days before the election of 2017 and they still supported me.’
He continued: ‘This has been a really tough time as you can imagine for my wife, for my family and for friends, and for the association, and to them I would like to thank them for the support throughout, every single day.
Mr Mackinlay marked the verdict today with a tweet carrying the simple message: ‘#Notguilty’
Prosecutors said he ignored strict spending limits to beat Mr Farage, and that the victory could have been declared void had the true position been known.
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.
Mr Mackinlay’s election agent Nathan Gray, 29, from Hawkhurst, Kent, was earlier acquitted of making a false election expenses declaration.
The court was told that Mackinlay, Little and Gray had knowingly filed ‘woefully inaccurate’ expenditure returns – including a forged signature.
Tory party worker Marion Little (pictured today) was found guilty of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence
The court heard the South Thanet constituency was considered a key seat in the 2015 general election as the Tories 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, told jurors his aides had been cautious over the election budget, fearing a challenge by Mr Farage.
‘Of any seat in the country, this would be the one looked at and pored over very carefully,’ he said.
Mr Mackinlay and his wife Kati, pictured in Ramsgate, Kent, during the 2015 election
He insisted he had little control over spending and described a ‘battle bus’ of volunteers drafted in by Conservative Party HQ as a ‘total waste of time’.
‘I was just a small cog in a big gearbox,’ he added.
‘This has been a really tough time for my family,’ admits Tory MP
Speaking after his acquittal, Tory MP Craig Mackinlay said: ‘Well, I have been acquitted today. It has been nearly three years of pure hell, for my family particularly. But I have got real thanks for the people of South Thanet.
‘They knew I was charged with these offences just six days before the election of 2017 and they still supported me.
‘I had more votes than have ever been recorded for a Conservative in that election for that constituency. They supported me and I am going to fight even harder for them in the future. I have tried throughout these whole nine weeks of being here at Southwark Crown Court to maintain my service to my South Thanet community, I can now redouble those efforts.
‘This has been a really tough time as you can imagine for my wife, for my family and for friends, and for the association, and to them I would like to thank them for the support throughout, every single day.
‘And so I can now get back to the work I was elected for, get back to Westminster at a very important time in British political history and to get back to serving the people of South Thanet because that’s what I am here for. It has been a dreadful time.
‘I think there are questions that need to be asked of the electoral law. I think the Electoral Commission needs to get together with the political parties to make sure that never again a candidate or an agent can be accused of these things because there are serious accusations that can be life-changing if convicted of them.
‘To many of you here I feel like I have been with you for months, I certainly hope not to see too many of you again in the near future.’
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.
Seasoned campaigner Little, who has worked for the party since 1974, was sent from central office to help run the campaign and was convicted by majority verdict of two counts of encouraging or assisting an offence.
Election spending is tightly controlled over two stages, known as a short and a long campaign.
Little was convicted on two counts relating to the short campaign and cleared of one count relating to the long campaign.
Although overall declarations came in below the £52,000 limit, the prosecution said thousands spent on staffing, hotels and advertising had gone undeclared.
The Crown Prosecution Service said the total undeclared figure was thought to be £61,861.15, but that there was no clear audit trail.
Zoe Martin, from the CPS special crime division, said: ‘There didn’t appear to be a very clear audit trail, if there was an audit trail at all, in terms of the reasons why certain expenses hadn’t been declared.
‘Precise figures have not been possible but certainly the weight of the evidence is that there was vast expenditure.’
Judge Andrew Edis handed Little a prison sentence of nine months, suspended for two years, and ordered her to pay £5,000 toward the ‘very substantial’ prosecution costs.
Little was given a suspended sentence – avoiding an immediate jail term because she is caring for her husband, who is gravely ill with cancer.
He 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.
Passing sentence, Mr Justice Edis said: ‘This was a sustained and deliberate course of conduct.
‘Mrs Little acted dishonestly by preparing returns she knew were not completed nor accurate.’
Ukip Leader Nigel Farage (left) and FUKP candidate Al Murray (centre) listen to Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay (right) receive his declaration results for South Thanet in May 2015
The judge said she was ‘carried away by her conviction’ that defeating Mr Farage was an ‘overwhelmingly important political objective’.
Mr Justice Edis said Little falsified documents then presented them to Mr Mackinlay and election agent Nathan Gray for signing, which ‘they did so in good faith not knowing what she had done’.
He went on: ‘No-one can know whether her misconduct had any effect on the outcome of that election but she plainly intended that it would.
‘I’m quite satisfied that of those who worked on the Mackinlay campaign, she was the author and origin of this falsehood.
‘Both (Gray and Mackinlay) trusted her to prepare honest returns and intended to provide truthful and completed declarations.
‘I’m satisfied that Mrs Little deliberately set about concealing the true nature of the Mackinlay campaign.’
When asked outside court if he accepted his expenses return was over the limit, Mr Mackinlay said he had ‘no idea’.
He batted away questions about Little, saying: ‘That’s something for central office to actually answer. I think the electoral law is so vague I really can’t be sure. The one thing I do know, I was not responsible for any of those expenses.’
In an official statement, Mr Mackinlay said: ‘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 also called for an urgent clarification of election law, but raised concerns over whether the Electoral Commission is ‘fit for purpose’ to help with the task.
‘I now have extreme concerns as to the clarity of election law, and the glaring grey area between national spending rules (under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000) and local spending rules (under the Representation of the People Act 1983),’ he said.
‘Candidates and Agents should never have to face the threat of criminal prosecution, with life-changing consequences, in the face of abstract law.’
A Conservative Party spokesman said: ‘We welcome that Craig Mackinlay MP and his election agent have been cleared of any wrongdoing by the court.
‘This case has highlighted just how unclear and fragmented electoral law was in 2015.
‘We are disappointed with the verdicts in relation to Marion Little. It was only in 2018, three years after the event, that the Supreme Court concluded an interpretation of the election law in question, overturning a unanimous ruling from the Court of Appeal, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice, that warned of ‘wide ranging unintended consequences… in terms of criminality’ of taking forward such an interpretation of the law.
‘The Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which was passed by a Labour Government, provided a distinction between candidate-focused spending and party-focused spending.
‘However, given recent court interpretations, there is clearly a need for greater clarity and guidance on the law. We will take further legal advice and continue to meet with the Electoral Commission to seek this.’
After the case, Mr Farage said: ‘This verdict shows that there are no election rules for the big parties in British politics, they can wilfully overspend without any consequences.’