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Conservative MP MacKinlay faces trial over election fraud charges

LONDON (Reuters) - An MP from Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority ruling Conservative Party, will face trial after he denied on Tuesday making false declarations over his spending in a 2015 election.

FILE PHOTO: MP Craig Mackinlay speaks in favour of leaving the EU at a Brexit debate called "The Morning After the Vote", hosted by Thomson Reuters at Clifford Chance, in London, Britain, April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Craig MacKinlay, 50, who beat leading Brexit figure Nigel Farage in the parliamentary election for the South Thanet in southeastern England in 2015, is accused of making false claims about his spending during the campaign.

Despite the ongoing case against him, he won the seat again in this year’s June election.

May’s Conservatives lost their majority in that ballot and remain in power only through an agreement with 10 Northern Ireland MPs. If MacKinlay were to be found guilty, he could be jailed for up to a year and there would be pressure for a by-election.

MacKinlay appeared in London’s Westminster Magistrates Court on Tuesday alongside his election agent Nathan Gray, 28, and Marion Little, 62, a campaign director from the Conservatives’ head office who both also face charges over the expense returns.

All said they would plead not guilty when the charges were read to them and they will now go on trial at London’s Southwark Crown Court. Their next hearing set for Aug. 1 and they were granted unconditional bail.

The case centres on accusations that MacKinlay should have included costs on his expenses return relating to activists on the Conservatives’ “Battle Bus” which was sent to campaign in closely-contested seats.

MacKinlay reported a total spend of 14,837.77 pounds against a maximum limit of 15,016.38 but prosecutors say other expenses were deliberately omitted.

The 2015 election saw MacKinlay beat Farage, the former head of Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), into second by 2,812 votes.

He then retained the seat in June with an increased majority of more than 6,000 votes as support for UKIP collapsed with Farage, who played a key role in securing Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year, no longer the party’s candidate.

In May, prosecutors ruled out bringing more widespread criminal charges over allegations of expenses fraud by the Conservatives during the 2015 campaign.

The Crown Prosecution Service had considered information from 14 police forces across the country about whether the party had broken spending limits, which are governed by tight, complex rules, but decided there was insufficient evidence to charge any individuals.

The Electoral Commission, the independent election watchdog, in March fined the Conservatives a record 70,000 pounds for breaking rules by incorrectly reporting its spending.

Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt