Boris Johnson flat inquiry: what sanctions can watchdog impose?

Boris Johnson is bracing for an investigation by the Electoral Commission into payments covering renovations to his Downing Street flat. What will the process will look like and what sanctions could the Conservative party face?

Allegations surfaced last month that Johnson was donated or loaned £58,000 by a peer and party donor to fund a makeover of his No 11 residence. Late last week the issue was ignited by an intervention from Dominic Cummings. In a blog post, Johnson’s former top adviser said the plans were “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”, and that the prime minister had told him about the scheme last year.

The commission then announced it was holding preliminary discussions with Conservative headquarters, before deciding to launch a formal investigation several days later. It said there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred” under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, but has not spelled out what these are.

The commission is able to interview people and demand organisations hand over specific documents and information relating to income and expenditure. If access to certain files is refused, the watchdog can ask the high court to grant a disclosure notice forcing their release. Documents handed over can be held for three months.

There are three possible outcomes. It could decide:

If the commission concludes beyond reasonable doubt there is evidence of wrongdoing, it can impose a sanction and refer the matter to the police and prosecutors. Where a donation or loan is found to be impermissible, the watchdog can apply to a court for an order for Conservative Campaign Headquarters to forfeit the equivalent amount, or it can decide not to impose a sanction so long as this is in the “public interest”. A penalty of between £250 and £20,000 can be issued.

If the Conservatives fail to comply with any of the commission’s demands, that could comprise a criminal offence. If the watchdog’s investigation is obstructed, or false information is provided, it can seek prosecution.

There is no set time frame. The commission says it is the interests of justice for the inquiry to conclude “as quickly as possible”, but that its “first priority” is a “fair and thorough investigation”, which will always take priority.

Two separate inquiries are being held in Whitehall, one by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, and another by the new adviser on ministerial standards, Christopher Geidt.

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