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Election gambling scandal engulfing Britain's ruling party, explained

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the campaign trail.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the campaign trail. Copyright James Manning/PA via AP
Copyright James Manning/PA via AP
By Andrew Naughtie
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With a week to go until a general election in the UK, an investigation into potentially illegal betting by people close to Rishi Sunak is the last thing the collapsing Conservative Party needs.

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With the UK’s general election just a week away, the reigning Conservative Party looks set to suffer a devastating defeat after 14 years in power.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the party’s poll numbers have remained stuck at a record low for more than a year and a half — and the election he called by surprise at the end of May has done nothing to improve them. Instead, the campaign has been a catastrophe.

Sunak announced the snap election outdoors in the pouring rain, then appeared at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, where reporters duly asked him if his party resembled a sinking ship.

While other minor but embarrassing gaffes quickly piled up, the worst was yet to come, with Sunak leaving a major D-Day commemoration early to sit for a pre-recorded TV interview. 

But now, with the Conservatives’ numbers still flatlining and predictions of a near-wipeout result, a full-on disaster has hit the party with only days to go till the vote.

In a scandal first broken by The Guardian, it has emerged that several people close to Sunak are under investigation for placing suspicious bets on the date of the election in the 24 hours before it was called.

Among the accused are one of the prime minister’s close protection police officers; MP Craig Williams, one of Sunak’s closest parliamentary aides; the party’s chief data officer, Nick Mason; its campaigns director, Tony Lee; and Lee’s wife Laura Saunders, the Tory candidate for Bristol North West.

The authorities are now investigating whether these people used their insider knowledge about the election date to take an opportunity to make money by gambling on it — potentially a criminal offence.

The election had been widely expected to happen in the autumn, and most Tory MPs and staff appear to have been taken by surprise with the decision to call it for 4 July. The implication is that some of those privy to Sunak’s thinking will have taken advantage of relatively long odds to place sure bets before the announcement was made.

When it emerged that the investigation was underway, British political journalists wasted no time looking through available data from top betting exchanges to confirm that a flurry of bets on the date had indeed come in just before Sunak announced the country would be going to the polls.

Things only keep getting worse

Since the scandal began, Sunak and the central Conservative Party have insisted that they cannot discuss it in detail because the accused are under investigation. The prime minister says the party is conducting its own internal investigation, and said there would be consequences should anyone be found to have crossed the line.

Nonetheless, he has been widely criticised for not immediately suspending the two candidates accused — and for not speaking out as soon as the allegations emerged.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, who, based on current polling, is all but certain to be prime minister come 5 July, condemned Sunak for his slowness. 

“If they had been my candidates, they’d have been straight out of the door and their feet wouldn’t have touched the floor,” he told The Independent. “But to wait a week, to make excuses like that, is inexcusable.”

Michael Gove fields questions from his audience at the Policy Exchange in London, 1 July 2016
Michael Gove fields questions from his audience at the Policy Exchange in London, 1 July 2016Stefan Rousseau/AP

Some criticism of the Tories has come from the party’s own elite. Michael Gove, a longtime minister who reportedly encouraged Sunak to go ahead with the snap election and then announced he would not be standing in it, told the Sunday Times newspaper that the betting story was reminiscent of the scandal over parties held in Downing Street during the COVID-19 pandemic — a saga that ultimately ended Boris Johnson’s premiership.

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“It looks like one rule for them and one rule for us,” Gove said. “That’s the most potentially damaging thing. The perception that we operate outside the rules that we set for others. That was damaging at the time of Partygate and is damaging here.”

At first, the scandal seemed confined to people close to Sunak. But then it began to expand. 

'Gentlemen, place your bets'

It has now transpired that candidates in other parties have also been betting on electoral outcomes while also standing themselves.

Labour candidate Kevin Craig, who is on the ballot in a previously safe Tory seat, has been suspended by his party after it emerged he had placed a bet on himself to lose.

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In a statement accepting his suspension, he acknowledged what had happened, he did not have self-enrichment in mind.

“A few weeks ago when I thought I would never win this seat I put a bet on the Tories to win here with the intention of giving any winnings to local charities,” he wrote on X. “While I did not place this bet with any prior knowledge of the outcome, this was a huge mistake, for which I apologise unreservedly.”

Starmer acted quickly to suspend him, but the Labour leader has also stopped short of denying that anyone else among his candidates has done the same thing.

It has since emerged that another Tory candidate, Sir Philip Davies, also bet on himself to lose, with The Sun tabloid reporting he wagered £8,000 that he would be unseated. Challenged on the news, he told the tabloid that he “fully expected to lose” but pointed out he had done nothing illegal.

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Others found to have placed bets on outcomes in individual seats include the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Alex Cole-Hamilton, who is not himself on the ballot. He told an interviewer he sees no moral issue with what he has done but would be open to a review of rules on whether or not elected officials and candidates can gamble on elections.

But the crucial point is the allegations swirling around Sunak’s inner circle involve behaviour that is not just unbecoming, but illegal. And there is a serious prospect that the Gambling Commission investigation and suspension of Sunak-adjacent Tories will not be the end of the story.

In a statement issued the same night as the latest Starmer-Sunak debate, the Metropolitan Police said it is “investigating a small number of cases to assess whether the alleged offending goes beyond Gambling Act offences to include others, such as misconduct in public office.”

If members of his staff or any of his prospective MPs are found to have committed criminal offences using the knowledge he shared with them, the already desperately unpopular Sunak will go into the election with yet another millstone round his neck.

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