Standing as an independent is often a handy get-out clause for an MP at odds with his or her superiors and officials; a bone of contention between party and politician can prompt a resignation and provoke a by-election, as happened with Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park. Although it didn’t pay off for that particularly hapless Hooray Henry, if the MP is popular enough within the constituency, voters can overlook tribal loyalties and go for the personality rather than the party. Even then, however, one man (or woman) against the intimidating onslaught of everything a major political party can call upon is not an experience for the faint-hearted.
On the eve of the February 1974 Election, Eddie Milne – MP for Blyth of 14 years’ vintage – was deselected by Labour following years of campaigning against local government corruption in the North East; Milne was eventually vindicated when the Poulson Affair broke, but the involvement of leading Labour figures in the scandal had earned Milne the enmity of his local party. He decided to run as an independent and defeated the Labour candidate. When losing his seat in the October Election that same year, Milne blamed his loss on the overwhelming strength of the party machine, claiming Labour had utilised the entire weight at its disposal and directed it towards Blyth for the sole purpose of dislodging a thorn in its side.
When Nigel Farage announced his intention to stand as a candidate for the seat of South Thanet in Kent at the 2015 General Election, the same party machine that can be turned on its own renegade sons and daughters was directed towards the then-UKIP leader. It was evident that the Conservative Party was determined to prevent Farage from winning the seat at all costs. South Thanet was vacant on account of its Tory MP Laura Sandys deciding to stand down, and such a high-profile figure as Farage aiming to make it seventh time lucky in his ongoing bid for Westminster triggered the alarm bells at Central Office. Emails leaked to the media two years later alleged that Theresa May’s Political Secretary Stephen Parkinson and Chris Brannigan, Director of Government Relations at the Cabinet Office, had played a significant part in the operation to keep Farage out, suggesting this was no ordinary attempt to protect a vulnerable marginal.
Opinion polls published in the months leading up to the Election showed UKIP with a strong lead over the Tories in South Thanet – including 9% in April; Farage being perhaps the most famous politician in the country without an actual Parliamentary constituency to his name meant that the media selected the seat as one-to-watch during the campaign and on Election Night itself. The intervention of comedian Al Murray, standing as an independent in a stunt to further derail Farage’s chances of capturing the seat, placed an even greater spotlight on South Thanet. Its previous claim-to-fame rested on its MP from 1983-97, disgraced Tory Minister Jonathan Aitken; but in 2015 South Thanet attracted as much attention as any other constituency being fought over in the country.
To add additional spice to the drama, the Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay was a former member of UKIP himself and had been the party’s deputy leader in 1997; he stood unsuccessfully at both the 2001 and 2005 General Elections for UKIP before defecting to the Tories shortly after his second defeat. The incumbent UKIP leader standing against a former UKIP deputy leader in the same seat in 2015 was a dream script for political observers, yet it was difficult to predict which way the wind would blow in South Thanet come the day of the Election. In the end, Mackinlay narrowly defeated Farage, receiving 18,838 votes to Nigel’s 16,026; and that seemed to be the end of the affair, with Farage resigning as UKIP leader and his best shot to date at becoming an MP resulting in failure once again.
However, when Channel 4 News broke the story of extortionate Conservative Party spending during the 2015 General Election the following year, South Thanet returned to the national headlines. The Tories were accused of pouring thousands into the battle-buses ferrying activists to and from marginal constituencies and covering their expenses (including hotel accommodation) in the process; though not a crime in itself, these associated costs should have been regarded as local expenditure rather than national, something which did indeed break the rules.
Kent Police opened an investigation into Craig Mackinlay’s spending returns, and whereas the CPS baulked at proceeding with prosecution when it came to the many other accusations of a similar ilk relating to 2015, the case of South Thanet has been the exception. Today, with less than a week to go to the General Election, it was announced that Craig Mackinlay, his election agent Nathan Gray, and party activist Marion Little have all been charged with offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and are scheduled to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on July 4. The CPS decided there was sufficient evidence to charge the trio and it is in the public interest to do so.
With only two years between the last General Election and this one, rather than the expected five, the chances of the South Thanet 2015 result being declared void and a by-election being triggered as a consequence (depending on the outcome of the case against Mackinlay) have been scuppered by the overturning of the Fixed Term Parliament Act and the fact Mackinlay is standing again on June 8. As for Nigel Farage, he’s already declared he won’t be standing this time round, so what could have been a far more interesting end to this story won’t take place after all. But the murky nature of the machinations to prevent Nigel Farage from capturing South Thanet is a lesson to smaller parties and independents everywhere.
© The Editor