- 15 Jan 08, 04:14 PM
Here at Newsnight we are currently engaged in a theological dispute with Conservative Central Office of the “angels on a pinhead” variety. Namely, how many members of the Conservative Party have to be in a helicopter before the trip falls below the eligibility criteria for registration as a donation with the Electoral Commission....
We revealed last night three entries by David Cameron in the Parliamentary Register of MPs Interests which were not declared to the Electoral Commission:
2 October 2005, helicopter flight from London to Dewsbury to Blackpool for party conference, provided by David Instance, Sellinge, Ashford. (Registered 17 October 2005)
6 October 2005, plane flight from Blackpool to London provided by Michael Spencer. (Registered 17 October 2006)
13 October 2005, helicopter flight to and from Newcastle and London from JJ Gallagher Estates. (Registered 17 October 2005)
All these trips were made in relation to his campaign to be elected leader of the Conservative Party and should be registered if they cost above 1,000. The first and third were in a helicopter, the middle one in a private jet. They have to be valued at commercial rates for delcaration purposes. We costed the helicopter rides with several helicopter companies. Here's what came back:
London to Dewsbury to Blackpool:
£4,600+VAT Quote A
£2,900+VAT Quote B
£4,850 Quote C
£3,400 + VAT Quote D
£7,195 + VAT Quote E
Now before going any further it strikes me this is a very untransparent an illiquid market, where the price of getting your innards joggled around while dodging wind turbines in the freezing cold at 500ft, varies so massively. Maybe David Cameron should do something to liberalise the private helicopter market if he ever becomes PM.
OK so, you are asking (unless you are a regular Conservative blog comment poster, because you are by now manically typing my name into a comments box on Guido's website, complete with c-word and queries about my sexual orientation etc)… like I say, you are asking: what is the reason the Conservatives give for not declaring the flights with the Electoral Commission?
It is that since there was more than one person on the flight, the cost of each flight should be divided by the number of passengers, arguably bringing it below £1,000. Here is their statement:
"We believe that these three flights, which were declared in the House of Commons Register of Members' interests, were not considered to have qualified for registration with the Electoral Commission. As you know, different rules (and limits) apply in relation to the Register of Members' Interests and the Electoral Commission."
This seems to me still problematic. Were the people in the cabin with Mr Cameron just there randomly or had he asked them to go with him? If so shouldn’t the whole trip go down as an election expense in the Conservative leadership campaign for the candidate?
We have asked the party for a list of those on each trip, and we have asked the Electoral Commission for a ruling on whether it’s permissible to divide the cost. We're still waiting for answers.
There has been some buzzing around on the blogs and the BBC duty log as to why we ran this story on the night that we led with more revelations about Peter Hain. Some have suggested we were trying in some way to equate the two cases. To me they seem of a separate order - but the Cameron case does illustrate a point made to me by a number of politicians: the system of double declaration of expenses – to the Commission and to Parliament - is cumbersome and can catch you out.
I'd be glad to hear what you think about this, provided of course your feelings can be expressed within the comment rules here!