Time and again, Tory MPs and their cheerleaders in the press have sung one refrain when it comes to the question of the Battle Bus expenses. When challenged as to why the cost has not been declared locally, the reply is inevitably that this is a nationally organised campaign, it was a function of CCHQ, and therefore it forms part of national spending. As a result, no candidate need declare it on their expense return.
As a result, many of those who proved victorious in many marginal constituencies managed to stay within their spending limits. There was only one problem with this approach - the buses brought activists who campaigned and canvassed in those constituencies. They were therefore part of the local campaign. So they should, at least in part, be billed to the local campaign. But then many of those MPs would be in trouble.
That is because going over the spending limit is against the law. But then, so is non-disclosure of expenditure. Still, the line has been adhered to, and with everyone singing from the same hymn-sheet, it would be easier to convince both the Electoral Commission - and the press, most of whom don’t want to rock the boat and risk destabilising the same Government that most of them were effectively campaigning for.
However, and here we encounter a significantly sized however, the Tories have not always held the view that Battle Bus spending is a national expense. While much of the attention on their expense returns has focused on the “short campaign”, that last few weeks before the General Election, analysis of the “long campaign” that preceded it bears close inspection - and provides damning evidence to bust the “national expense” claim.
Two constituencies in Wales were visited by the Road Trip 2015 campaign early in 2015, these being Brecon and Radnor, and Gower. The latter had returned a Labour MP at every General Election since 1910, but Tory AM Byron Davies was hoping to pull off an upset. Thanks to the Mirror’s “Peoples Electoral Commission”, his expense return for both short and long campaigns is available online.
The two pages of the return to look out for are those numbered 33 and 38. The first of these breaks down the “Categories of spending”. Unlike all those other constituencies visited by Road Trip 2015 (Brighton Kemptown and Yeovil, for instance) that had a NIL entry for “Transport”, that for Gower shows an amount of £500. Now scroll down to page 38, and it can be seen what that cost refers to.
There is just one item, supplied by “Welsh Conservatives”, for a “Notional” sum of £500, and it is described clearly as “Road Trip 2015”. Exactly as this blog has been saying - some part of the cost has to be declared as local spending. Byron Davies has done just that. Anyone might think that this point of principle got lost as push came to shove to make sure that “short campaign” spending stayed within limits.
That’s the Tories’ “National expense” defence well and truly busted.