Britain’s electoral watchdog, which is investigating Boris Johnson’s ‘cash for curtains’ flat makeover at No 10, was last night branded ‘biased’, ‘incompetent’ and ripe for abolition.
Tory MPs tore into the Electoral Commission’s ‘lamentable record’ and urged the Prime Minister to press ahead with replacing it.
Senior Tory backbencher Peter Bone led the charge, saying the watchdog ‘was not fit to investigate a drinks party in a brewery. This is a biased and incompetent organisation. It should be abolished. And if the Government does not introduce such a Bill in the Queen’s Speech this month, I will propose it myself in a backbench Bill.’
He was joined by Tory colleagues Philip Davies and Andrew Bridgen in demanding a radical overhaul of the watchdog. The MPs denied they were taking revenge on the Commission for the makeover investigation.
Senior Tory backbencher Peter Bone led the charge, saying the Electoral Commission ‘was not fit to investigate a drinks party in a brewery
But Mr Bone accused the watchdog of unveiling the inquiry to save its own skin and stave off radical plans to replace it, a move that some expected to be in this month’s announcement of new Government legislation. Last night, one Cabinet Minister privately admitted that with the inquiry under way, it would be ‘very tricky’ for Mr Johnson to go ahead with a major revamp.
In a dramatic intervention into the No 10 flat row last week, the watchdog – which regulates party funding and political donations – announced it was carrying out ‘a formal investigation’ to look into whether the Tory Party had any role in transactions relating to the makeover and if they were properly declared.
It sparked anger on the Tory benches for allegedly prejudging the outcome of the inquiry by saying it was ‘satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred’.
Mr Johnson has insisted that he settled the £58,000 bill to redecorate the flat himself, but there are claims that this was only after the Party originally paid for the work to help out the cash-strapped Prime Minister.
Tory staff have now been warned by party bosses that they face severe criminal consequences if they fail to co-operate with the Commission’s inquiry and hand over all relevant information about the controversial refurbishment.
However, many MPs had been expecting this month’s Queen’s Speech to include plans to rein in the watchdog after a series of highly controversial investigations as well of allegations of anti- Brexit bias.
Only last year, the then Electoral Commission chairman Sir John Holmes was denied an extension to his four-year term by MPs.
The PM and Carrie Symonds face the prospect of handing over emails and phone messages after the elections watchdog dramatically announced an investigation
In a bombshell move, the Electoral Commission opened a formal investigation into the funding of the lavish refurbishment of the couple’s official flat. Pictured: A design by Lulu Lytle, who is believed to have carried out the refurbishment
He had faced criticism for saying that he regretted the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and condemning the ‘panoply of Eurosceptic nonsense’ from pro-Leave campaigners months after he was nominated as head of the watchdog.
Despite a requirement to ‘uphold its impartiality’, three former commissioners also criticised Brexit while in their posts.
The watchdog also came under fire for allegedly persecuting Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes by slapping a £20,000 fine on him for electoral offences during the referendum – only to see the penalty overturned in the courts.
Yesterday, the watchdog was accused of wrongly recording two charitable gifts by tycoon Sir James Dyson as donations to Tory MP Michelle Donelan, which meant the BBC could refer to the entrepreneur as a prominent Tory backer.
The watchdog has been also been slated by MPs across the political spectrum for being ‘too bureaucratic’. And last year, Tory Party chairwoman Amanda Milling appeared to signal that the Commission in its current form would be replaced by saying it was ‘simply not fit for purpose’ and was ‘too willing to push for the prosecution of political and party activists’.
Last night, North-West Leicestershire MP Mr Bridgen said the regulator had a ‘history of politically motivated investigations’.
He echoed his party chairman’s verdict, saying: ‘It has demonstrated through its actions that it is not fit for purpose in its present form.’
Shipley MP Mr Davies said the watchdog had a ‘lamentable track record and ‘a massive overhaul’ was needed ‘to restore some credibility and confidence in this organisation’.
However, Labour accused the Tories of trying to hobble the watchdog because it was investigating how the Prime Minister paid for his flat refurbishment.
Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Cat Smith said: ‘The Conservatives’ attempts to weaken and intimidate the Electoral Commission come straight out of the Republican Party playbook.
‘This is just one part of a concerted strategy by the Tories to remove scrutiny and proper accountability. The Conservative Government must make a clear statement revoking these threats.’
Government insiders played down the prospect of immediate action over the Commission, saying an independent review into it was still ongoing.
A Commission spokesman said: ‘Parliament has given us a duty to investigate electoral offences. Where we have reasonable grounds to suspect that such offences may have occurred, we are duty bound to act in order to establish the facts. This process should not be undermined by unsubstantiated allegations of bias.’
Sources also insisted that in recording donations to Ms Donelan, it simply reflected how the gifts was declared by the MP on the Commons’ register of outside interests.