Former Tory MP Lowell Murray is suing a number of regional Tory associations in a legal claim alleging they deliberately skewed a ballot to prevent him from being successful in a nomination battle for the safe Tory seat of Kingston and the Islands.
Murray – who is seeking damages of at least £1m after leaving parliament at the general election, which Conservative party rules require he stand aside for a new candidate – alleges that he was blocked from standing by regional Tory associations in the area that “packed and stuffed the ballot boxes” to prevent him standing.
In a statement of claim lodged at the high court on Tuesday, Murray alleges that six regional Tories – including the chair of the Kingston and the Islands unit, Peter Stockton – “acted unlawfully and intentionally, by planning and planning and planning and planning and then they did it”.
The allegation could prompt a criminal investigation – an allegation the regional Tories strongly deny. “We reject these ridiculous allegations that this was anything other than a democratic, fair and open process,” said Richard Caudwell, an attorney for regional Tory officials, when contacted by the Guardian.
An announcement over whether the courts will investigate the case will be made later this week. Meanwhile, Stockton, whose unit is named in the claim, told the Guardian: “I have done nothing wrong in the nomination process.”
For three months, after Murray announced his intention to stand in the byelection, rival candidates received multiple letters from regional Conservative officials asking that they sign up as affiliated members, or CAU members.
A letter from Stockton to Ian Dalton, who was nominated to run against Murray in the local primaries, states that CAU members are required to sign up because of the constitution of the local Kingston and the Islands unit. Dalton, a social entrepreneur, was not a regional Tory member and declined to sign up.
Both Stockton and another official from the regional Tories, Bert Harrison, allegedly personally called Dalton and urged him to join. When he refused, Harrison – who is named in the claim – allegedly screamed at him.
Between January and April, regional Tory officials contacted all four regional affiliates in Kingston and the Islands and asked that they co-ordinate the nomination process to help block Murray. They reportedly asked that they collect hundreds of signed up members and send them to the local unit.
Murray alleges that they “mercilessly and deliberately whittled away” the regional Tories’ control over the constituency after he announced he would stand. According to the claim, Stockton and Harrison then went back and forth with each other to try to “crack down” on the process and ensure Murray did not stand.
The claim claims that local Conservative members signed up as CAU members to help and then shared the names of those constituents who had supported their choice of candidate. Once the list of names of supporters had been shared, it is alleged that the regional Tories intervened to set the bulk of the votes for Dalton. They reportedly told the party chair, who signed up as a supporter of Dalton, to “drop your attempts to stop me”.
According to the claim, the regional Tories conducted this campaign in concert with local Labour MPs, who are also named as defendants in the claim.
To block Murray, local Tory officials allegedly signed up more than 1,200 supporters, propping up Dalton, as has been reported by the Toronto Star, to stop Murray from challenging him.
However, the campaign was reportedly so organised that it resulted in at least one tip-off to a Conservative National Policy Forum member that there were “three or four people behind the scenes coordinating the conference which are keen to win the byelection”. At least one of the officials involved is now in the Conservative frontbench.
Regional Tories rejected these allegations.
According to the high court claim, “The members of the local group of Conservative associations for Kingston and the Islands are fervent and loyal. They have never knowingly been instructed to do anything by the individual RPL members who are, and are not, national RPL members.”
Stockton denied any involvement in the vote-rigging, saying: “Absolutely not. I would never have thought I would be the person who would be subjected to this kind of attack.”
A lawyer for Murray declined to comment.