Published: 11:52, 09 January 2019
| Updated: 15:16, 10 January 2019
An MP has been found not guilty of falsifying election expenses in the General Election of 2015.
A jury acquitted South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay after a 10-week trial at Southwark Crown Court in which he denied any wrong-doing.
The not guilty verdict means he is cleared to continue as an MP for the seat he was elected to represent.
Craig Mackinlay speaks outside Southwark Crown Court
The charges followed investigations by the broadcaster Channel 4 into the Conservative party’s election expenses during 2015 and claims the party had breached permitted legal limits on campaign spending by failing to properly report them as local election expenditure.
During the trial, Mr Mackinlay had repeatedly denied that he had signed off expenses claims knowing they were wrong.
The MP was charged in June 2017 and faced two charges of knowingly making a false expenses declaration under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
His wife, who had attended every day of the trial, sobbed with relief as the verdicts were read out.
Some members of the jury were also emotional as the judge thanked them for their service during a trial that lasted 10 weeks.
Outside Southwark Crown Court, Mr Mackinlay told the media: "It has been three years of pure hell for my family particularly but I have got real thanks for the people of Thanet.
"They knew I was charged with this offence just six days before the election in 2017 and they still supported me.
"They support me and I am going to fight even harder in the future for them. I have tried throughout the nine weeks to maintain my service to people of Thanet.
"This has been a really tough time as you can imagine; for my wife my family and for the association.
Mr Mackinlay was one of three defendants on trial. The two others were his election agent at the time, Nathan Gray, and election campaign director Marion Little.
Little has been found guilty on two counts of "intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence" in relation to the expenses returns. She was acquitted on the third count.
She has been handed a nine-month suspended sentence to run concurrently and ordered to pay a £5,000 contribution to costs.
Mr Gray was acquitted of falsifying expenses claims.
The verdict came after a trial that shone a light on the closely-fought campaign in which Ukip leader Nigel Farage was hoping to finally achieve his ambition to become an MP.
"It has been three years of pure hell for my family particularly but I have got real thanks for the people of Thanet..." - Craig Mackinlay
VIPs like Boris Johnson and former party leaders Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague all joined Mackinlay in the run up to the election.
The allegations centred on whether the Conservative party had exceeded permitted spending limits because the costs of accommodation for party campaigners at the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate had not been included in the local spending returns.
There were also claims that spending on campaign battle buses had not been properly recorded as local expenditure.
According to local spending returns, Mr Mackinlay spent £14,838 on his campaign in South Thanet during what is known as the short campaign - the last few weeks before polling day - slightly below the £15,000 limit.
In the long campaign, the party submitted expenses for £32,661.26, also within the limit.
But it was claimed the real figures would have been tens of thousands of pounds more if certain expenses had been properly attributed.
Defence lawyers for Mr Mackinlay and Marion Little said a distinction had been drawn between the party’s expenditure on its national anti-Ukip campaign - which was being run from South Thanet - and expenditure on the local campaign.
This distinction meant that the legal limits on expenses were not exceeded, they claimed.
In evidence, Mr Mackinlay had denied signing off expenses that he knew were wrong.
He said: "I would say that is an impossibility. I would never sign anything that's wrong, that's just not me, it's an impossibility.
"If you’re a new candidate you have to understand the hierarchy in the Conservative Party. I was just a mere small cog in a gearbox.”
Prosecution counsel Aftab Jafferjee told jurors the Conservative party were determined to win.
“In seeking to ensure the success of the Conservative party’s candidate and the defeat of Nigel Farage... proper regard to the limits of expenditure imposed by law was simply abandoned,” he said.
The court heard how local constituency association chairman Tony Salter had raised concerns about expenses as early as February.
In an email to Mr Mackinlay, Marion Little and Nathan Gray, he wrote: “We're getting perilously close to hitting our legal limits, both for the long and short campaign.
"I take on board your concerns that we face the real prospect of a legal challenge from Farage if you make the smallest slip up.'
Under election law, the maximum prison sentence for anyone found guilty of illegal practice is one year.
If more than the maximum has been spent, any candidate or election agent who incurred or authorised the expenses — and who knew or should have known of the breach — is guilty of an illegal practice.
A person found guilty of an illegal practice can be fined and disqualified from election to the House of Commons for three years.
An MP found guilty of an illegal practice must stand down.
Outside court, Mr Mackinlay said: "It has been a dreadful time and I think questions need to be asked about electoral and I think the Electoral Commission needs to get together with the political parties to make sure this can never happen again to a candidate or an agent to be accused of doing these things because they can be life-changing."
Asked if he thought his election expenses had breached the legal limit, he said: "I have no idea."
When he was asked about the charges against Marion Little, he said: "The one thing I do know is that I was not responsible for any of those expenses."