IT’S tough being special. Smart kids get bullied, peacocks attracts crows, and the Liberal Democrats are the dew-eyed victims of baseless smears. That, at least, is how how the party and Edinburgh West MP Christine Jardine have been defending themselves after a Herald investigation into general election spending. A quick disclaimer. I’ve known Ms Jardine since she tutored me in journalism 20 years ago, and I’ve chatted amicably with her at LibDem conferences ever since. I like her. But the evidence is what it is.

Checking official candidate returns is part of newspaper routine after elections. I’ve spent many a ham-hardening hour in council offices sifting invoices and punching a calculator in search of the newsworthy. Sometimes it’s quirky, like the MP who hired an ice cream van to campaign in, and sometimes it’s prosaic, like who spent what where. Parties pretend they fight for every seat, but by their budgets shall ye know them, and the returns tell all.

After June’s election, it was the LibDems’ specialness that stood out. The party seemed to have worked a kind of political alchemy, spending thousands on leaflets that somehow didn’t count against the local limits imposed to ensure a fair fight. The formula was to call large chunks of the spending “national”. Only local spending is deemed to have promoted the candidate. National spending, which promotes the party in general, is accounted for separately.

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So in East Dunbartonshire, UK LibDem deputy Jo Swinson declared she scraped home £210 below the limit, but only after she assigned £2500 of election material to the national cause. She also said 30 per cent of her staffing and office costs were national, punting £1500 more onto the party’s books. Another £2700 of leaflets went undelivered, she said, some 93,000 items. Quite a miscalculation in the party’s top Scottish target. After a two year hiatus, Ms Swinson reclaimed the seat from the SNP by 5339 votes.

The specialness didn’t stop there. In North East Fife, LibDem Elizabeth Riches was £432 under the spending limit - after disregarding £2000 of costs as national. She came just two votes behind the SNP winner. In Caithness, MP Jamie Stone said £2200 of costs were national, although he was well short of the spending cap. And in Edinburgh West, scene of one of the nastiest fights of the election, Ms Jardine stayed £1680 under the limit after assigning £3000 of costs to the national effort, rather than the local onslaught.

How did the magic work? The Electoral Commission allows split spending based on “honest assessment” if material partly promotes a candidate and partly the party. So the LibDems printed reams of double-sided leaflets with a candidate on one side, and leader Willie Rennie and warnings about Indyref2 on the other. They then split the cost 50-50 between the local and national totals. In effect, candidates were getting lots of leaflets half-price, letting them flood target seats, as 50 per cent of the tab would be counted as national.

Canny, right? Well, not so fast. The Commission says the “main purpose” is key to splitting costs. If the main purpose of a leaflet is promoting a candidate, and the party gets a mention along the way purely to help plug the candidate, then that’s all local spending.

In Edinburgh West leaflets were mailed out with Ms Jardine on one side and Mr Rennie on the other, but they arrived, in the heat of an election, in envelopes accompanied by a wholly local leaflet asking for a vote for the candidate. Four-page newsletters were split 50-50 as Ms Jardine was on the front and back covers and the party blurb tucked inside.

Personalised leaflets also turned up in people’s mail that mentioned Edinburgh West by name but were not included in the local spending total. The LibDems say they had prior approval from the Commission and all is well, but others are unconvinced.

What was the “main purpose” of such material? To promote the candidate and party absolutely equally, or push the candidate in a knife-edge seat? I saw the LibDem campaign room in Edinburgh West. There were bales of leaflets and letters stacked along the walls. They all looked pretty similar to me. Little did I realise so much of the bill would turn out to be national.

At the very least there's a perception problem here. Other parties don’t splits costs like this, despite the magical results. Indeed, the SNP forbids it. The LibDems say they’ve checked and doubled-checked and it’s all above board. But it looks to many like they’re gaming the system, pleading they follow the letter of law while milking every ambiguity for advantage. You could say it’s just politics, or you could say it stinks. I doubt the public would be split 50-50 on that.