By Peter Hoskin
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Following ConservativeHome’s own demands for official party membership figures from CCHQ, both the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times have sifted through constituency accounts to produce some numbers of their own. For the records, here are some of the key points from both papers’ reports, although it’s worth reading them in full. The Daily Telegraph first:
And the Sunday Times (£):
A month ago, Jack Straw accepted a new clause tabled by the Conservatives to the Constitution and Governance Bill which enshrined in law that returning officers were duty bound to count the votes at general elections within four hours of the close of poll, i.e. on the Thursday night. It seemed that General Election Night had been saved from the returning officers seeking to delay counting until the Friday.
Mr Straw said at the time - and Eleanor Laing for the Conservatives accepted - that the wording of the clause would probably have to be amended.
And so it was during proceedings on report stage of the bill last week, in a way that - as Iain Dale has already noted this morning - appears to give a vast amount of leeway to retuning officers who want to count the following day.
The original version of the new clause stated that guidance on the exceptional circumstances for which a Friday count would be permissible would be drawn up by the Justice Secretary in consultation with the Electoral Commission - and subject to approval by the Common and Lords as secondary legislation.
However, my understanding is that since these measures in the bill are only due to be passed in the so-called "wash-up" period immediately prior to Parliament's dissolution before the general election, there would be no parliamentary window to approve that secondary legislation.
As such, the Government's new clause 37 in the bill still states that:
"The returning officer shall take reasonable steps to begin counting the votes given on the ballot papers as soon as practicable within the period of four hours starting with the close of the poll."
but the guidance will be issued by the Electoral Commission rather than the Justice Secretary and not subject to parliamentary approval. Furthermore, if the votes are not counted on the night, the returning officer will have 30 days to publish a statement explaining why this was not the case.
The will of Parliament is absolutely clear on this in favour of Thursday night counts. The immediate onus is therefore now on the Electoral Commission to ensure that its guidance reflects that and is robust in outlining that counting must take place on the night unless there are very exceptional and/or unforeseen circumstances.
Francis Maude, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, has had a noteworthy written answer:
"To ask the hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission with reference to the answer of 4 March 2008, Official Report, column 2242W, on Liberal Democrats: finance, what the (a) status and (b) timetable is of the Electoral Commission's investigation into the permissibility of the donations by Mr. Michael Brown to the Liberal Democrat Party. 
Sir Peter Viggers: The Electoral Commission informs me that following the recent conclusion of criminal proceedings against Mr. Michael Brown, it has now resumed its investigation into the permissibility of donations made to the Liberal Democrat Party by Mr. Brown in 2005.
This is an episode that the Liberal Democrats would doubtless rather forget. Mr Brown, who donated £2.4 million to the Liberal Democrats, was recently found guilty of fraud on massive scale - stealing £36 million from clients, one of whom was the former Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards. Brown is currently a fugitive, and was tried in his absence.
On a more prosaic matter, geeks should note that Sir Peter Viggers is a rare thing - a Conservative MP responsible for answering written parliamentary questions.
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