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Craig Mackinlay trial: Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan-Smith and William Hague among Conservative heavyweights drafted in to support South Thanet campaign


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A string of high-profile ministers were drafted in to help boost the Conservative election campaign in a key battleground against Ukip leader Nigel Farage in the 2015 General Election, a court heard.

The details of the visits, almost on a daily basis, were part of the Tories' strategy in the hotly-contested battle for the South Thanet seat, which was eventually won by Craig Mackinlay.

Mackinlay and two other defendants, stand accused of submitting false expenses which allowed them to bypass strict rules on how much could be spent on the campaign.

A school pupil gets a selfie with Boris Johnson and Craig Mackinlay on the 2015 General Election campaign trail
A school pupil gets a selfie with Boris Johnson and Craig Mackinlay on the 2015 General Election campaign trail

It is alleged it allowed them to bring down political VIPs like Boris Johnson and former party leaders Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague.

Defendant Marion Little, who co-ordinated the campaign, repeatedly denied the visits were part of local party expenditure at Southwark Crown Court.

The court heard how on one occasion, a media event was arranged to go to a farm to dig up a cauliflower which was then taken to Sandwich market as part of a visit by ministers James Brokenshire and Liz Truss.

Mrs Little, who denies the charges against her, was asked by her defence counsel about the arrangements for a visit by Boris Johnson.

She said she had been worried about the welfare of local party supporters as his visit had generated a “media scrum.”

William Hague visits Broadstairs with Craig Mackinlay in 2015
William Hague visits Broadstairs with Craig Mackinlay in 2015

The court heard this week how the Conservative party was concerned it could exceed spending limits in the fight to win the South Thanet seat at the general election in 2015.

Little was asked by defence counsel about an email in which local party chiefs expressed worries that the party could end up breaching limits on spending.

The email said "we face a real prospect of a legal challenge by Farage... we cannot make the smallest slip up."

Asked what the email meant, Little said the seat "was a top priority" and Nigel Farage "had invested a lot in it" and that he had threatened to resign if he failed to win.

"So we had to be very careful that we stayed within the law and the legal limits," she said.

Asked by defence counsel Jim Sturman about whether she had played "fast and loose" with the rules on expenses, she said: "Absolutely not, I would never do that."

Iain Duncan Smith and then Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay in 2015
Iain Duncan Smith and then Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay in 2015

She denied she had been tempted to "squirrel away" money which had it been spent on the campaign would have taken it over spending limits.

She told the court the Conservative party had realised that it faced a "serious problem" after Ukip held its annual conference at Margate.

"It became very obvious that South Thanet was going to be very much the media centre for the campaign. It became top of the list."

She denied she had wanted to be the election agent and said her role was to co-ordinate the national campaign against Ukip rather than run Craig Mackinlay's campaign.

The court heard how the party had during the final days of the campaign, the party had mislaid 500 leaflets designed to be sent to voters.

Asked about the incident, she said there was confusion about the missing leaflet and denied it was a way of limiting the expenses returns.

"They had just disappeared, they could not be found. We reordered some more but I was keen to ensure we had no more than 500."

She was asked about a visit by former footballer Sol Campbell to support the campaign but had arrived without a pair of trainers and that she had gone out to buy a pair.

Asked if she had claimed the money back, she said she could not recall if she had.

Mackinlay denies two counts of "knowingly making a false declaration on an election expenses return", contrary to the Representation of the People Act.

Gray denies one count of knowingly using a false instrument "namely in respect of the election expenses return for the long campaign period".

He also denies "knowingly making a false declaration on an election expenses return".

Little denies three counts of "intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence" in relation to the expenses returns.

The trial continues.

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