Little old UKIP sure picked the wrong fight when they decided to take on the Electoral Commission. The party's long running legal dispute with the Electoral Commission seems to have reached an unhappy conclusion: UKIP have been ordered by the Court of Appeal to pay back the £363,000 they received in donations from Alan Bown in 2005, and also to pay legal costs. This decision now appears to have been confirmed, with the party denied the right to appeal to the Supreme Court. The party faces a bill of £750,000 - a fair chunk of cash for either the Tories or Labour to find, but an enormous sum for a party with well under 20,000 members.
Retired bookmaker Mr Bown has been one of UKIPs biggest (and most loyal) donors for a number of years. But the case rests on the fact that, at the time these particular donations were made, Mr Bown was not registered to vote in the UK and so the Electoral Commission followed the letter of the law and declared the donations to be inadmissible. It demanded that the money be paid back.
In 2007, Westminster magistrate's court found that although the ukip were guilty of failing to take "all reasonable steps" to establish that Bown was on the electoral roll, the error had been accidental and that UKIP should forfeit £18,481 on the donation. Rather than hold his hands up, admit the mistake and promise not to repeat it, Nigel Farage threw his toys out of the pram and accused the Electoral Commission of political bias and of being a puppet of the political establishment. Having had its integrity unfairly impugned, the Electoral Commission went to the Court of Appeal, demanding that the monies be paid back in full. Last week, the Court of Appeal found against Ukip, with Judge Sir Paul Kennedy stating that:
"Parliament having decided that the test of acceptability of a donation from an individual should be whether that individual was registered in an electoral register, it seems to me to be irrelevant whether an impermissible donor is or is not making a foreign donation"
UKIP has estimated that its total bill – including paying back the illegal donations and its massive legal costs – will amount to £750,000. This is money that UKIP simply has not got. In other words, Nigel Farage’s ego has financially bankrupted UKIP. Good job for him that he's pre-empted any possible moves to remove his as leader by resigning to stand as an 'anti-sleaze' candidate (now, then, no laughing at the back!) against Tory Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.
Predictably, UKIP are furiously arguing that the penalty is disproportionate. Bown is a legitimate businessman who had previously made large donations to the party but had, temporarily, slipped off the electoral register. A clerical error and a demonstration of the sort of rank incompetence that UKIP is famous for, but surely not a crime to merit such a stiff punishment.
As far as UKIPwatch is concerned, UKIP should never have allowed themselves to get in such a mess. The Electoral Commission is, in legal terms, completely correct. Ukip had taken money from an impermissible donor. Had UKIP admitted their mistake an amicable solution could certainly have been found. Instead, Farage's ego took over and they had to portray themselves as poor, embattled UKIP, fighting the political establishment.
Aside from the fairness of the outcome, one fact remains: UKIP will have to find £750,000, and fast. With a party of about 16,000 members, that's one hell of an expensive whip-round. Still, a quick look at the Electoral Commission's website shows that UKIPs MEPs have been funding the party for years. It's time for Godfrey Bloom (who always claims to be loaded), Stuart Agnew (apparently described by Farage as "thick as shit but he has money", and Farage himself to put their hands in their pockets and bail the party out.