What is the UK election betting scandal all about?

What is the scandal about, who is under investigation and what does it mean for the ruling Conservative Party?

'Incredibly angry' about betting allegations: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a BBC Question Time Leaders' Special in York, the United Kingdom, on June 20, 2024 [Stefan Rousseau/Pool via Reuters]

As British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer faced off in their final televised debate on Wednesday night ahead of next week’s general election, a betting scandal which is likely to become the source of major embarrassment to the ruling Conservative Party continued to grow.

On Wednesday, it emerged that the Metropolitan Police have taken a more prominent role in an investigation into bets that senior politicians and officials placed on the upcoming general election.

Amid angry exchanges with the prime minister about plans for taxation, immigration and even transgender rights, Starmer took aim at top Conservatives who are suspected of using inside information to bet on the date of the election before it was announced when he said it showed the “wrong instinct” to bet on the future of the country.

Described by one senior Conservative figure, Baroness Ruth Davidson, as akin to political “insider trading”, allegations that some party officials placed bets on the date of the election look set to hound what could be the Conservative government’s final days after 14 tumultuous years in office.

“Firstly, I mean, how tawdry is it?” raged Davidson on last Friday’s Sky News Electoral Dysfunction podcast about the allegations currently pummelling her party, which has been led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak since 2022.

Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party at the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, added: “I literally have no words. I’ve been involved in fighting elections for more than 15 years and I literally have no words.”

What is the scandal about?

Allegations that some Conservative candidates and officials bet on the date of Britain’s July 4 general election have been growing since it was revealed two weeks ago that Craig Williams, an aide to Sunak, had placed a 100-pound ($127) wager on there being a July vote just days before Sunak himself announced the date of the poll to the British public.

So far, five Conservative officials have been named as being under investigation by the Gambling Commission (GC) for allegedly placing bets on a July election using inside party knowledge.

The GC, the United Kingdom body responsible for regulating Britain’s gambling laws, is believed to be investigating as many as 15 Conservative Party candidates and officials for allegedly betting on the timing of the election.

In a separate but related development, the Conservative Party’s Scottish Secretary Alister Jack admitted to placing several small bets on the election date during March and April – but has insisted that he broke no rules and said that he was not under investigation by the GC.

In a twist on the betting scandal, The Sun newspaper reported on Wednesday that another Conservative, Philip Davies, bet 8,000 pounds ($10,115) that he would lose his marginal seat of Shipley in West Yorkshire in the upcoming election. Davies told the Sun that he “fully expects to lose” his seat to Labour, which is forecast to win, and added that it was “nobody’s business” if he decided to bet against himself.

The Labour Party has not emerged entirely unscathed by the betting scandal. Kevin Craig was stripped of his candidacy by the Labour Party on Tuesday after it came to light that he was under investigation by the GC for betting that he would lose his own bid to become an MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich in the upcoming election.

Craig Williams
Conservative MP Craig Williams, pictured here after winning the constituency of Montgomeryshire in the UK’s 2019 general election, in Builth Wells, Wales, UK on December 13, 2019, was the first to be named as one of those being investigated by the Gambling Commission [File: Rebecca Naden/Reuters]

Which five Conservatives are under investigation for placing bets?

Williams, the first to be named as being under investigation by the Gambling Commission (GC), was standing as the Conservative Party candidate for Montgomeryshire and Glyndwr in Wales when he came under investigation.

The 39-year-old admitted to making a “huge error of judgement” in seeking to make money from placing his 100-pound bet, with odds of 5-1, on the election date, meaning he could have won 500 pounds ($633). He has not revealed whether he had inside knowledge of the election date before he made his bet, but Ladbrokes, the betting firm with which he placed the wager, refused to register the bet after it flagged him up as a “politically exposed person”, and referred the matter to the GC.

Laura Saunders was the second party official to come under GC investigation as she canvassed as the Conservative candidate for Bristol North West. Saunders was soon joined by her husband, Tony Lee, the Conservative Party’s director of campaigning, who took a leave of absence after it emerged that he was also being investigated by the GC.

On Tuesday, both Williams and Saunders were dropped by their party as candidates, but they appear to still be contesting their respective seats, meaning that, if elected, they would sit as independents in the House of Commons.

The Conservative Party’s chief data officer, Nick Mason, became the fourth Conservative to come to the attention of the GC after it was alleged that he, too, had placed a number of election bets before the date of the snap poll was announced by Sunak.

Russell George, a Conservative member of the devolved Welsh Parliament, was revealed on Tuesday evening as the fifth party figure to face an inquiry by the GC, despite not running for a seat himself in the general election.

An unnamed police constable, who was part of the prime minister’s security detail, was arrested on June 17 following allegations that he had placed a similar bet. A further five police officers are also being investigated by the GC, it has since emerged.

What are the rules for MPs and others placing bets using inside information?

Section 42 of the 2005 Gambling Act explicitly forbids gamblers from using inside information (also known as insider trading) to place a bet or provide the necessary information to someone else to place a bet on their behalf. It carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.

The Parliamentary Code of Conduct also warns MPs against doing anything which might “cause significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons”.

Appearing on a special edition of BBC Question Time on June 20, Sunak himself stated that the scandal is “a really serious matter – it’s right that they’re being investigated properly by the relevant law enforcement authorities”.

Sunak said he was “incredibly angry” about the allegations. “The integrity of that process should be respected,” he said. “But what I can tell you is, if anyone is found to have broken the rules, not only should they face the full consequences of the law, I will make sure that they are booted out of the Conservative Party.”

What does this mean for the Conservative Party’s election campaign?

Sunak’s Conservative Party was already trailing badly behind Labour in the polls prior to the betting revelations. A recent Savanta survey for the Telegraph has shown that this is likely to further damage the party, with two-thirds of voters saying they disapproved of Conservative candidates placing bets on the date of the election.

Furthermore, this scandal is just the latest in a long list of controversies that have dogged Britain’s ruling Conservatives in recent times, and is symptomatic of a party that has grown “corpulent with complacency” during its 14 years in power, said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.

“As the 19th-century politician, Lord Acton, once wrote, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’” Bale said of the Conservative Party’s list of travails, such as “Partygate”, the scandal over parties and gatherings held at then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official residence in Downing Street during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, which broke lockdown rules.

Bale said: “Because the Labour Party provided no serious opposition to them for a decade, all too many Conservatives, having had it too easy for too long and taking their cue from the very top, got used to thinking they could, as the saying goes, get away with murder.”

He added: “But that era of impunity was never going to last once Labour recovered its senses and voters grew tired of the government’s failure to deliver on the fundamentals.”

Source: Al Jazeera