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Boris Johnson is facing an investigation by a watchdog the Tories have been trying to axe, having long accused the organisation of being biased and unfairly targeting pro-Brexit campaigners.

The Electoral Commission’s critics are now seeking to have it abolished and replaced after a series of scandals including its lengthy investigation of numerous Vote Leave officials.

The quango was especially criticised for its efforts to prosecute pro-Leave activists Alan Halsall and Darren Grimes, which ended last year in police dropping its investigations following discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service.

The case of Mr Grimes, founder of pro-Brexit campaign group BeLeave, who was initially fined £20,000 for allegedly making false declarations over donations, sparked particular anger and resulted in him winning an appeal against the penalty.

The campaigner described the incident as incorrectly ticking a box on a complicated application form.

It was also left red-faced when it referred the case of Arron Banks, the Leave.EU co-founder, to the National Crime Agency, only for detectives to find ‘no evidence’ of criminal offences, including allegations he faced that £8m of loans came from Russia.

The Commission has also been the subject of further controversy in recent years after it emerged one of the senior members of its executive team, Head of Regulation Louise Edwards, posted a series of anti-Tory messages on Facebook prior to joining the watchdog.

The watchdog announced yesterday it was launching a probe into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment amid mounting pressure from the Prime Minister’s opponents.

But many within the Tory party have long claimed the Commission is not fit for purpose.

House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said as recently as last month that the watchdog’s operations were ‘in serious need of reform… particularly regarding its accountability to the House and how it may bring prosecutions’.

Prior to that, the party’s co-chairman, Amanda Milling, argued against the Commission’s push for powers to prosecute, writing in the Telegraph: ‘After their botched handling of recent cases it cannot be allowed to mark its own homework.’

And senior MP Peter Bone launched a scathing attack on the quango in the House of Commons last year, describing it as ‘politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt’. 

Some even suggest Commission bosses have acknowledged the damage its reputation had taken in recent years, after launching an appeal for a new chairman, whose focus will be ‘building and maintaining trust’. 

The timing of yesterday’s announcement of the investigation, just an hour before Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer were to lock horns at Prime Minister’s Questions, also raised eyebrows. 

Boris Johnson is facing an investigation by a watchdog that has been branded 'politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt' after it was accused of unfairly targeting pro-Brexit campaigners

Boris Johnson is facing an investigation by a watchdog that has been branded 'politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt' after it was accused of unfairly targeting pro-Brexit campaigners

Boris Johnson is facing an investigation by a watchdog that has been branded ‘politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt’ after it was accused of unfairly targeting pro-Brexit campaigners

Bob Posner

Bob Posner

Louise Edwards

Louise Edwards

The Electoral Commission is headed by an executive team including chief executive Bob Posner (left) and Head of Regulation Louise Edwards (right)

The barrister and former local government boss at the head of the watchdog

A barrister and former local government boss, Bob Posner has been the chief executive of the Electoral Commission since April 2019.

Before that he served as the watchdog’s Director of Political Finance & Regulation and Legal Counsel and has also worked as returning officer at a number of elections.

He first joined the Commission in 2007, boasting extensive public sector experience in electoral law and practice, regulatory compliance and governance.

Chief Executive Bob Posner

Chief Executive Bob Posner

Chief Executive Bob Posner

His role at the Commission is described as ‘putting into practice strategies agreed with our Commission Board’. 

Mr Posner has previously claimed that Britain’s electoral system is ‘fraying at the edges’ and causing concern for voters.

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The Head of Regulation who posted anti-Tory messages on Facebook 

Louise Edwards was appointed as the Commission’s Head of Regulation in 2015, having previously worked for the likes of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Ofgem and the Home Office.

The watchdog website says she is responsible for regulatory work, which includes ‘funding and spending at elections and referendums, registering political parties and our enforcement work’. 

Head of Regulation Louise Edwards

Head of Regulation Louise Edwards

Head of Regulation Louise Edwards

Following the Commission’s probe into Tory spending returns in 2014 and 2015, there were accusations of a ‘politically-motivated witch-hunt’, after the discovery of Miss Edwards’ old Facebook posts, in which she said she did ‘not want to live under a Tory government’.

After David Cameron was elected PM in May 2010, she wrote: ‘Just can’t understand what people were thinking – do they not remember the Tories before?’

She also posted about how she could ‘not believe’ she lived ‘under a Tory PM again! What is wrong with people? Grrr! Words have failed me.’

She added: ‘Louise Edwards doesn’t want to live under a Tory government’.

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In arguably the Commission’s most notorious case, Mr Grimes was fined in 2018 after being accused of breaching spending rules during the EU referendum campaign two years prior.

But the campaigner insisted he was ‘completely innocent’ of making false declarations in relation to a £680,000 donation to his youth-focused BeLeave group from the main Vote Leave campaign.

The Electoral Commission – which regulates political parties, members and campaigners – found that BeLeave ‘spent more than £675,000 with (Canadian data firm) Aggregate IQ under a common plan with Vote Leave’, which should have been declared by the latter but was not.

This spending took Vote Leave over its £7 million legal spending limit by almost £500,000.

Mr Grimes, a former fashion student originally from County Durham, raised £93,956 via an online crowdfunding campaign to appeal against the verdict of the commission at the Mayor’s and City of London Court in Central London.

The commission had misinterpreted the law and set a key legal test ‘too high’ on whether BeLeave had been correctly registered on official forms, the court heard.

Mr Grimes had said that he had intended to register the organisation BeLeave and not himself as an individual on the forms.

His lawyers said he had filled out the complex and difficult-to-understand forms to the best of his ability.

Even if the group BeLeave did not have a formal constitution by January 2016, it was clear it was made up of like-minded people who had an agreement to campaign over the Brexit issue in a certain way, according to Judge Marc Dight.

The judge said Mr Grimes had tried to meet his obligations to the commission in filling out the forms, and that his actions were not dishonest or lacking transparency.

Matthew Elliott, who was Vote Leave’s chief executive, said a movie should be made about Mr Grimes’ battle with the Commission.

Even anti-Brexit campaigner and Labour peer Lord Adonis was critical, admitting: ‘It sounds to me as if the Electoral Commission has not been doing its job properly. 

‘On the face of it, it seems to have been extremely incompetent.’ 

Senior Tory Peter Bone raised the issue in the Commons, telling fellow MPs: ‘The arrogant, incompetent and vindictive Electoral Commission suffered its final humiliation.

‘For four long years it has investigated and hounded four people from four different Leave organisations making their lives and their family’s lives hell.

‘The police said they were totally innocent and had done nothing wrong.’

Addressing the Prime Minister, he asked: ‘For the sake of democracy, will you ensure that politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt quango is abolished?’

Mr Johnson said in response he ‘heard’ Mr Bone’s concerns, adding that he hoped those who were wrongly accused will receive ‘attention to their genuine innocence’.

Meanwhile, efforts to bring down Arron Banks, who funded Leave.EU during the 2016 referendum, also failed after a referral to the National Crime Agency resulted in detectives finding ‘no evidence’ of criminal offences.

It was alleged the millionaire insurance broker may have hidden the ‘true source’ of £8million in loans linked to his campaign group.

Mr Banks, nicknamed the ‘Bad boy of Brexit’, was dogged by claims he was backed by the Kremlin to help bring about the UK’s divorce from the EU – but he repeatedly branded it ‘b*****s’.

The claims were then put to bed after the NCA confirmed it did not receive ‘any evidence to suggest that Mr Banks and his companies received funding from any third party to fund the loans, or that he acted as an agent on behalf of a third party.’ 

The Commission’s executive team is currently made up of five members: Chief Executive, Bob Posner; Director of Electoral Administration and Guidance, Ailsa Irvine; Director of Regulation, Louise Edwards; Director of Communications, Policy and Research, Craig Westwood; and Director of Finance and Corporate Services, Kieran Rix. 

It is not known who exactly at the organisation, whose individual commissioners are appointed following approval from both MPs and the Queen, has authorised the probe into how the refurbished flat was funded.

Of the seven major investigations listed on the Commission’s website, four are in reference to specifically pro-Brexit organisations and individuals, while another refers to the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats’ election spending in 2015 and a probe into campaign spending by Momentum, the far-left Labour group, two years later, make up the others. 

The watchdog has sweeping police-style powers to investigate potential offences, including the power to demand documents including bank statements and WhatsApp messages.

It also has the power to require anyone to attend a ‘statutory interview’. Interviews are taped and it is a criminal offence to knowingly provide false information. 

The Commission announced yesterday it was launching a probe into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment

The Commission announced yesterday it was launching a probe into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment

The Commission announced yesterday it was launching a probe into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment

But senior Tories have, for years, insisted that the Commission should not be given powers to prosecute.

Amanda Milling, co-chairman of the party, wrote in the Telegraph last year: ‘Despite having an unclear rulebook the Commission is only too willing to push for the prosecution of political and party activists. And as we have seen in recent years this has led to lengthy and often unnecessary investigations.

‘Despite this the Commission still wants powers to prosecute. After their botched handling of recent cases it cannot be allowed to mark its own homework. This must remain a matter for the police and the independent Crown Prosecution Service, overseen by the courts.

‘This attempt to give itself more powers, without recourse to the Government or Parliament, is exactly why there are serious concerns about the Electoral Commission’s lack of accountability, its strategy and its leadership.’

The Commission’s probe into Tory spending returns in 2014 and 2015 were also accused of being a ‘politically-motivated witch-hunt’ after the discovery of Facebook postings by Louise Edwards, its head of regulation, in which she said she did ‘not want to live under a Tory government’.

In 2017, prosecutors told up to 30 Conservative candidates and election agents that they would not face criminal action for failing to properly declare their use of so-called battle buses in 2015.

The allegations centred on claims that expenses relating to busloads of Tory activists sent to key seats were reported as part of national party costs rather than falling within the lower spending limits for the constituencies visited.

But the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said that even though some spending returns may have been inaccurate, there was insufficient evidence to prove they were knowingly dishonest. 

The Commission was especially criticised for its efforts to prosecute pro-Leave activist Darren Grimes, which ended last year in police dropping its investigation following discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service

The Commission was especially criticised for its efforts to prosecute pro-Leave activist Darren Grimes, which ended last year in police dropping its investigation following discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service

The Commission was especially criticised for its efforts to prosecute pro-Leave activist Darren Grimes, which ended last year in police dropping its investigation following discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service

Meanwhile, the National Crime Agency found 'no evidence' of criminal offences against Leave.EU boss Arron Banks

Meanwhile, the National Crime Agency found 'no evidence' of criminal offences against Leave.EU boss Arron Banks

Meanwhile, the National Crime Agency found ‘no evidence’ of criminal offences against Leave.EU boss Arron Banks 

How the watchdog’s commissioners work 

The watchdog’s commission board is made up of its executive team as well as a chairman and a group of nine commissioners who are ultimately appointed by MPs and the Queen.

Potential commissioners are nominated by the leaders of political parties and scrutinised by an internal panel known as the Speaker’s Committee.

Selections are then approved by the House of Commons by means of an Address to the Queen, requesting their appointment. 

Those nominated by the three largest parties in Parliament – currently the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP – serve terms of four years, while the commissioner nominated by a smaller party serves for a two-year term. 

The watchdog website describes its commissioners’ roles as follows:  

  • Set our overall strategic direction, and ensure we deliver our strategic goals
  • Set our regulatory priorities, and monitor our regulatory activity
  • Make regulatory or other statutory decisions, if required
  • Ensure we use public funds efficiently and effectively, and operate within our limits and to high standards of governance
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The announcement triggered an outpouring of anger from Tories who had been under suspicion.

There was particular fury over the role of Miss Edwards, with the Tories highlighting some of her posts on Facebook, written before she joined the commission.

After David Cameron was elected PM in May 2010, she wrote: ‘Just can’t understand what people were thinking – do they not remember the Tories before?’

She also posted about how she could ‘not believe’ she lived ‘under a Tory PM again! What is wrong with people? Grrr! Words have failed me.’

She added: ‘Louise Edwards doesn’t want to live under a Tory government’. 

Mr Johnson yesterday insisted he has not broken any laws as news of the Commission’s investigation broke. 

The watchdog said there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect an offence may have occurred, dramatically deepening the PM’s troubles over the renovations.

Downing Street said Mr Johnson would be ‘happy’ to assist the commission with its inquiries into who initially paid for the work carried out in his No 11 residence.

Questions have been mounting since former aide Dominic Cummings accused Mr Johnson of wanting donors to ‘secretly pay’ for the renovations to the apartment in a ‘possibly illegal’ move.

Shortly after the commission’s announcement, Mr Johnson told Prime Minister’s Questions he ‘personally’ paid for the renovations, but refused to answer whether he received an initial loan from the Tory party.

Challenged by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer over the ‘incredibly serious’ development, Mr Johnson told MPs that ‘any further declaration that I have to make, if any’ will be advised by his newly appointed independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Lord Geidt.

Sir Keir pressed the Prime Minister on whether he believes any ‘rules or laws have been broken’ over the refurbishment of the flat.

‘No, I don’t,’ Mr Johnson replied, adding that he has ‘met the requirements that I have been obliged to meet in full’.

Everything you need to know about the Electoral Commission’s inquiry into funding of Boris Johnson flat

By Jason Groves, Political Editor for the Daily Mail

What will the inquiry look at?

The Commission said it had ‘reasonable grounds to suspect an offence or offences may have occurred’ in the funding of renovations at the flat shared by the PM and Carrie Symonds above 11 Downing Street.

It has the power to investigate potential breaches of the Political Parties and Elections and Referendums Act (2000) by both parties and individual MPs, including ministers. But the Commission later clarified the party is the ‘subject of the investigation’ initially.

It means investigators are likely to look at whether donor Lord Brownlow gave £58,000 to the party to recompense it for money it had loaned the PM. But a source said the investigation will go ‘wherever the evidence leads’ and the inquiry could eventually be expanded to cover questions around the declarations made by the PM.

What are the possible sanctions?

Investigators are looking at whether electoral law on donations has been followed at every stage. It will look at the full history of how the huge cost overrun on the refurbishment was funded.

Mr Johnson says he has now paid the £58,000 cost himself, but evidence seen by the Mail suggests it was originally paid in July by the party. A leaked email suggests Lord Brownlow then repaid the party in October.

The investigation is likely to focus on whether the payment to the Conservatives was properly declared by the party. It will also examine whether there were other, as yet unknown, donations and if proper checks were made to ensure they came from permissible donors.

Failure to declare donations within a month is an offence under the Political Parties and Elections and Referendums Act (2000). Possible sanctions include fines of up to £20,000.

What powers does the Commission have?

It has sweeping police-style powers to investigate potential offences. These include the power to demand documents including bank statements and WhatsApp messages.

It also has the power to require anyone to attend a ‘statutory interview’. Interviews are taped and it is a criminal offence to knowingly provide false information.

No10 said Mr Johnson would co-operate with the inquiry, opening up the prospect he could be the first serving prime minister interviewed under caution in relation to alleged law breaking.

Could the police get involved?

The Electoral Commission has primary responsibility for policing electoral law. Sources said police were likely to get involved only if certain evidence emerges, such as the destruction or forgery of documents or a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

The watchdog has the power to refer matters to the police if it uncovers evidence of offences that it does not have the power to deal with itself.

Could the PM face other investigations?

Yes. The financing of the PM’s flat makeover is now the subject of an internal investigation by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and a separate inquiry by his new adviser on ministerial standards, Lord Geidt, as well the probe by the Electoral Commission.

It could also be examined by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, who has the power to issue sanctions against the PM if he is found to have failed to declare relevant donations in the register of MPs’ interests.

Mr Johnson has been warned he could face enhanced sanctions after being reprimanded for ten previous failures to record financial interests on time.

These could include fines or even a temporary suspension from Parliament.

What does it mean for Government?

Ministers acknowledge it would be deeply damaging if the party is found guilty of breaking the law in order to fund renovations of the PM’s private flat. But any sanction is likely to be a fine, allowing the Tories to present it as a ‘technical’ breach of the law.

However, there are concerns the investigation could lead to a wider probe that will eventually involve the PM personally.

‘The big problem with an independent investigation is that you just do not know where it will end up,’ one senior Tory said.

There are also concerns that, with the probe likely to last for months, it will prove impossible to shake off the claims of government sleaze on issues ranging from lobbying to procurement deals.

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How a judge ruled Electoral Commission misinterpreted the law in case against BeLeave founder Darren Grimes

The founder of pro-Brexit campaign group BeLeave last year won his appeal against a £20,000 fine imposed by the Electoral Commission.

Darren Grimes was fined in 2018 after being accused of breaching spending rules during the EU referendum campaign three years ago.

But the campaigner insisted he was ‘completely innocent’ of making false declarations in relation to a £680,000 donation to his youth-focused BeLeave group from the main Vote Leave campaign.

The Electoral Commission – which regulates political parties, members and campaigners – found that BeLeave ‘spent more than £675,000 with (Canadian data firm) Aggregate IQ under a common plan with Vote Leave’, which should have been declared by the latter but was not.

This spending took Vote Leave over its £7 million legal spending limit by almost £500,000.

Mr Grimes, a former fashion student originally from County Durham, raised £93,956 via an online crowdfunding campaign to appeal against the verdict of the commission at the Mayor’s and City of London Court in Central London.

The commission had misinterpreted the law and set a key legal test ‘too high’ on whether BeLeave had been correctly registered on official forms, the court heard.

Mr Grimes had said that he had intended to register the organisation BeLeave and not himself as an individual on the forms.

His lawyers said he had filled out the complex and difficult-to-understand forms to the best of his ability.

Even if the group BeLeave did not have a formal constitution by January 2016, it was clear it was made up of like-minded people who had an agreement to campaign over the Brexit issue in a certain way, according to Judge Marc Dight.

The judge said Mr Grimes had tried to meet his obligations to the commission in filling out the forms, and that his actions were not dishonest or lacking transparency.

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