Tory ministers are accused of using taxpayer cash to influence the election

Boris Johnson
Tracy Keeling

A Labour MP has accused the Conservative government of using taxpayer cash for “party political purposes” (i.e. to influence the election in its favour). The controversial spending was for Facebook advertisements that went out to “swing seats” on the day parliament approved the general election.

‘My Town’

In July, Boris Johnson announced that a fund for towns in England would “support an initial 100 town deals” across England. Then, in October, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced that a “#MyTown campaign” would give “people a say” in how these town deals “transform the place they call home”.

Now, HuffPost reports that ministers authorised over 20 adverts for the #MyTown campaign to “go live” on 29 October. This was the day MPs voted for a general election. HuffPost claims:

The messages all appear to be specifically targeted at people living in mostly-Brexit-voting towns where the sitting MP has a majority below 5,000 votes, such as Milton Keynes, Morley, Northampton and Workington.

As government expenditure, ministers would have used taxpayer cash to fund the ads.

“An insult to our intelligence”

Labour MP Ian Lucas has written to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to complain and seek clarification. He told HuffPost:

These adverts are being deployed to Tory target seats on the cusp of a general election. It would be an insult to our intelligence to say that this isn’t public money being used for political purposes. It clearly is. And it is an example of how the government is merging political activity with the arms of government in its own political interest.

In his letter to Gove, Lucas said it was clear that the placing of the ads on the day MPs voted for an election “contravenes the established principles of impartiality during the election purdah”. He accused the government of an “inappropriate use of public funds for party political purposes”.

A government spokesperson said Lucas would receive a reply to his letter. They added:

These posts were published before the election was called and parliament has not yet been dissolved.

All towns selected were chosen according to the same selection methodology, including analysis of deprivation, exposure to Brexit, productivity, economy resilience and investment opportunities.

Not a level-playing field

As HuffPost says, the ministerial code dictates that “Ministers must not use government resources for Party political purposes”. However, these ads were for a campaign related to official government policy. They were also outside of purdah – a period ahead of an election in which civil servants and local governments must restrict announcements and communications that could influence the election.

Regardless, this situation does point to the fact that elections are not entirely a level playing field. The party of government does have its hands on the levers of power. So announcements it makes before purdah could fall in its favour.

Featured image via The Telegraph/YouTube

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