Two days ago, Zelo Street posted on the Tories’ Chippenham conundrum: there were all those activists posing for the obligatory group photo, several of whom were carrying placards promoting the party’s Battle Bus operation, while Michelle Donelan, now the town’s MP, was adamant that no bus had actually visited the constituency - well, not in the crucial last weeks before the poll. Who was telling the right tale?
Jon Craig of Sky News (“first for breaking wind”) told “Emma Pidding's Chippenham Roadtrip email says ‘free drinks - paid for by Team2015 - and dinner’ & ‘support our candidate, Michelle Donelan … Tory HQ disputing my report on battle bus expenses, claiming it didn't go to Chippenham. But I have email from Emma Pidding showing it did”. Ms Donelan replied that the bus had visited the previous November.
So it was outside the crucial pre-election period, and did not need to be declared as part of her spending. But the focus has come back to that photo, especially after a Zelo Street regular noticed, among the deleted Tweets for the @teamdonelan account, one that said “Busy day campaigning in Melksham to turn the Chippenham constituency blue #battlebus2015 @alexhpaterson”. It was dated April 6, 2015.
That is just before the Saturday campaigning visit described by Alexandra Paterson, then Chairman of Tory youth wing Conservative Future, in a post for the Blue Guerilla blog. Why use the term “#battlebus2015” if one of those buses was not visiting the constituency? Fortunately, this is one of those occasions when the opposition volunteers to ride the the rescue, in the presence of Mark Wallace at Conservative Home.
In an article titled “The computers that crashed. And the campaign that didn’t. The story of the Tory stealth operation that outwitted Labour last month”, Wallace tells “CCHQ had also co-opted the RoadTrip2015 campaign model - which had been developed by Mark Clarke, the Parliamentary candidate in Tooting in 2010, during the previous year - and which delivered activists from elsewhere to campaign in target seats”. And there was more.
“This proved difficult and costly to scale up, but buses and trains were provided to ensure that the right people arrived at the right place at the right time. Later in the campaign, six battle buses (real buses in the Midlands, the South West, two in the North West, a “SpAd bus” leaving from CCHQ each day and a metaphorical bus of 50 people heading out from London on the train) would be deployed to fill campaigning gaps in more remote or less well-staffed battleground seats” [my emphases].
And that is how Michelle Donelan can truthfully say that a bus did not visit her constituency in the last few weeks of campaigning, because one did not. But Chippenham has a station on the Great Western Main Line out of London’s Paddington station, served by regular fast trains from the capital. Hence the “#battlebus2015” presence and placards.
So the question of inducements - promises of food and bar tabs - remains, even if the train fares can be charged centrally. And that is why Michelle Donelan, and several other Tory MPs returned last year, still have questions to answer.