Whatever you think of Johnson’s flat, the Electoral Commission’s record on investigations is shockingly bad

29 Apr

The Downing Street story about Boris Johnson’s flat, and the leaks coming out of Number 10, continue to dominate the headlines, with the latest news being that the Electoral Commission (EC) will investigate the Prime Minister’s renovations. The EC has said it has “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

Across the media/ Twittersphere, you could practically hear the gasps as this was announced. The investigation alone seems to be taken as evidence of serious wrongdoing on Johnson’s part, with the EC presented as the great arbiter of political conduct. But are people’s memories really so short? Whatever one’s view of Johnson and his flat, it was extraordinary to see the EC elevated to such high status.

After all, it wasn’t long ago that the EC was convinced another political offence had taken place – only to be proven completely wrong. Following the Brexit referendum (in which the most militant Remainers wanted someone or something to blame for the result), the EC obsessively pursued Darren Grimes, whom it accused of breaching spending rules as part of a pro-Leave organisation, and tried to fine £20,000. 

Grimes appealed the commission’s decision and the High Court found in his favour, warning that even if an offence had been committed, it would not have warranted the maximum fine. It was ridiculous that the case even got to court, and the EC put Grimes through hell. But still it could only say it was “disappointed” by the verdict.

In another dire moment for the EC, it pursued Arron Banks, whom commissioners suspected was not the true source of £8 million loans to pro-Leave organisations. Wrong again. The National Crime Agency found no evidence of criminal offences after a “complex” investigation, and EC found itself agreeing a settlement with Banks. Even in spite of the verdict, the EC said it considered itself “right to refer this matter to the NCA for further investigation”. 

These two cases merely fuelled speculation of the EC having an institutional bias against Brexiteers, not least because it doesn’t seem to have pursued Remain cases with the same intensity. The Sunday Telegraph rather hit upon something in 2018 when it found out that almost half of the EC board had “made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned”, with three examples of this taking place while commissioners were in their “impartial” positions.

Sir John Holmes, for instance, Chairman from January 2017 to December last year, complained months before he was nominated for the role about a “panoply of Eurosceptic nonsense about the EU”, and his colleague Lord Horam, a commissioner, said in July 2017 that there was a “logical case” for a second referendum.

There is even evidence that EC board members think the whole election system is problematic. In 2020, Bob Posner, Chief Executive of the EC, suggested that the system was “fraying at the edges” and “worrying the public and voters”. This is despite the Commission’s own findings last year that 71 per cent of UK adults are confident that elections are well run in the UK (up from 69 per cent in 2019) and 92 per cent are confident that they know how to go about casting their vote (up from 89 per cent in 2019).

These incidents are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this organisation, and its strange history (to put it politely). From its habit of “reinvestigating” cases, to running investigations without interviewing the people it has accused of misconduct, to turning a blind eye to a scandal in Tower Hamlets, it has hardly inspired confidence. During the course of this article, I even discovered that one of the commissioners was “formerly the Chief Executive of the mail industry regulator, Postal Services Commission, between 2004 and 2008” (a period of time in which the Post Office was doing so well…).

With all of this, it really is no wonder that the Conservatives have talked about abolishing or revamping the commission, which Opposition parties have said “undermines democracy”. Interestingly the Commission is going through something of transition with Rob Vincent, the interim Chairman, who is to be replaced next week by John Pullinger, who until 2019 was the UK’s National Statistician and Chief Executive of the UK’s Statistics Authority, so it remains to be seen how it changes under him. His handover brief is pretty enormous.

Either way, whatever one thinks of the Johnson case, this latest investigation should be watched closely.