The Guardian’s splash today is eye-catching. Greenpeace, masquerading as the gloriously named Windefensible (shades of Chris Morris’s Nonce Sense), covertly recorded Chris Heaton-Harris MP making extraordinary admissions.

He set out a covert plan to pretend to run the Telegraph’s science-denial correspondent James Delingpole as a candidate, only to have him withdraw before putting his nomination in and to endorse the Tories. This scheme was designed to mislead the electors of Corby and to skew Tory party policy, and Delingpole played his role perfectly.

On one level, it’s funny, and they got caught before election day. On another, though, it’s extremely serious and potentially illegal.

The fact that Delingpole didn’t file doesn’t exempt them both from electoral law, especially Heaton-Harris, who as the Tories’ agent is effectively acting with the party’s authority.

How can a candidate be involved in electoral fraud when they don’t stand? Before we come to the law, the principle isn’t hard to understand. Let’s do a totally hypothetical example. Let’s say a leftish party of government faced a by-election after becoming involved in a war. If their rightwing opponents faked up an anti-war candidate to attack the government candidate from the left (in a way they couldn’t themselves, assuming they supported the war) that could be assumed to depress left turnout for the government candidate. Conversely, the governing party in that example could fake up an anti-war candidate, then have them fold just before nominations closed and get them to endorse the leftish candidate.

It’s fraud, essentially.

I’m no expert in electoral law, but there are at least two other offences potentially involved here, both as part of the 1983 Representation of the People Act. Were any donations made to Delingpole’s campaign by Conservatives? Section 71A on the control of donations may apply here if so. More obviously, Section 107 covers the “corrupt withdrawal from candidature”. Beyond that, false statements may have been made under the terms of Section 106, the section Phil Woolas was convicted under.

Update: it’s been pointed out to me by legal blogger @loveandgarbage that §118A of the 1983 Act confirms that a person becomes a candidate for the purposes of the Act no later than “the day on which he is so declared by himself or by others“, which Delingpole has clearly done, and is not dependent on the filing of nomination papers, payment of a deposit etc. That exposes Delingpole to far more of the Act’s restrictions, and may broaden the offences that need to be considered.

Anyway, I’ve asked the local police to sort it out. Letter below.

Hello all at Northants Police,
I note the Guardian’s cover story today about the covert arrangements between Chris Heaton-Harris MP, the Conservative Party’s agent in the Corby by-election, and James Delingpole, Telegraph columnist and putative candidate. I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the article and the film it’s based upon, but if not, it’s here:

It appears that both Mr Heaton-Harris and Mr Delingpole may have breached electoral law, including potentially sections 71A and 107 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. The former covers control of donations to candidates (depending on whether the donations mentioned were actually made to Mr Delingpole), and the second covers corrupt withdrawal from candidature.

Further offences of dishonesty may also have been committed specifically by Mr Heaton-Harris by his support for an apparently competitive candidacy, a candidacy we now know to have been devised by Conservative members and activists in order to skew both the election and party policy (the latter intention not being covered by electoral law).

Please can you let me know what action you might take with regard to these potential offences?

James Mackenzie