Former Saddleworth MP Phil Woolas is beginning the latest stage of his legal appeal as he attempts to resurrect his political career. His application for a judicial review of the decision to strip him of his general election victory will be heard in court in central London.
An election court ruled earlier this month that the ex-Immigration Minister had broken the law by knowingly lying about his Liberal Democrat opponent in campaign leaflets. The judges also barred him from holding public office for three years, and he was suspended by the Labour Party.
Three judges, led by Lord Justice Thomas, will decide whether Mr Woolas has the right to a full judicial review or not. That would be expensive, and Mr Woolas has been fundraising to try to cover his legal costs, with several of his former Labour colleagues among those donating cash.
Lawyers for Mr Woolas are expected to argue that the statements made in the leaflets were not about the ‘personal character or conduct’ of the Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins, but rather related to his political views. That distinction was absolutely crucial in the initial case. Put simply, you can more or less say what you like about someone’s policies, but knowingly telling lies about their ‘personal character or conduct’ is against the law as it stands.
The Woolas team has already pointed out that the judges relied on a definition of ‘personal character or conduct’ given by a judge in the last successful challenge of this nature in a Westminster election, which was 99 years ago. The implication is that Mr Woolas believes that sort of distinction is outdated in modern politics.
The hearing appears to be the last throw of the dice for Mr Woolas. If his application for a judicial review is not allowed it’s thought a by-election would quickly be announced, possibly for 16 December. The judges are due to begin sitting at 2pm today, and the hearing is listed for a day and a half.
Speaking in Uppermill yesterday, Mr Watkins said: “The legal process has to take its course. But Oldham East and Saddleworth is without an MP at the moment, so hopefully we’ll get that resolved in the next two days, and then we can have the by-election.”
You can read the Saddleworth News archive of articles about Oldham East and Saddleworth here.