Chairman of election watchdog is forced out

·3 min read
The chairman of the election watchdog is being forced to stand down
The chairman of the election watchdog is being forced to stand down

The chairman of the election watchdog is being forced to stand down after the body drew fury from the Conservatives over a botched attempt to hand itself powers to prosecute political parties.

Sir John Holmes is understood to have been told by MPs that he cannot continue in the role – after seeking to extend his four-year term beyond December.

The Electoral Commission is also now shelving plans to acquire powers to prosecute scores of criminal offences itself, rather than referring suspected breaches to the police and Crown ­Prosecution Service.

It comes after the Conservatives raised “serious concerns” about the leadership and accountability of the watchdog, over the proposals, which Amanda Milling, the party chairman, said would have amounted to the body “marking its own homework”.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph in August, Ms Milling said: “The commission should be focusing on improving its core functions, not trying to expand its empire. If the commission fails to make these changes and do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.”

This weekend, a commission spokesman said the body had “paused” the move, stating that “we do not currently have broad stakeholder understanding and consent”.

Sir John, who has chaired the commission since 2017, faced criticism when this newspaper revealed in 2018 that, months after being nominated as the body’s chairman, he said in a speech that he “regret[ted] the result” of the 2016 Brexit referendum and complained about “the panoply of Eurosceptic nonsense about the EU” heard during the campaign.

Brexiteers have repeatedly accused the commission of bias against pro-Leave campaigners. Sir John is understood to have informed the Speaker’s committee on the Electoral Commission, which oversees the body, that he wished to continue in his role beyond the initial four-year term. His predecessor, Jenny Watson, served for two terms, totalling eight years.

But the former civil servant’s request was turned down after members of the panel concluded that “all is not well” at the commission, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Last week, the committee began the process of appointing a replacement, with a public recruitment campaign expected to begin shortly. Under the Political Parties and Elections Act, the chairman cannot be a member of a political party, or anyone who has served as an MP or donated to a party in the last five years.

Sir John gave the commissioners’ endorsement to the push by Bob Posner, the body’s chief executive, to hand itself powers to prosecute parties and campaign groups – now “paused”.

A spokesman for the commission said: “We thank him for his leadership of and commitment to the commission over the past four years and for all his work in support of the UK’s democratic processes.”

The spokesman added: “We planned to consult later this year on changes to our enforcement policy, which would have included a draft prosecution ­policy. However, while we have had positive discussions with a range of stakeholders, we do not currently have broad stakeholder understanding and consent.

“We hope to build consensus in due course, but our current focus is to work to prepare for the polls taking place next May, to ensure that these elections can be delivered safely and effectively. We have therefore paused this work.”

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