Gambling scandal shows Rishi Sunak can’t shake the stench of Conservative sleaze

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The stillness of the election campaign in recent days — as the inevitability of a Labour victory dawned across the political spectrum — has shattered this afternoon in the most remarkable manner.

As I write, the Conservative campaign is reckoning with extraordinary allegations that some of its candidates — individuals possibly privy to inside information — bet on the timing of the election.

The prime minister’s decision to call a snap poll late last month for 4 July took the vast majority of Westminster, not least of all myself, by surprise. But in recent days and hours it has emerged that two Conservative candidates, the party’s director of campaigns and a member of Rishi Sunak’s security detail allegedly punted on the PM triggering that early poll.

This morning, the BBC named Tony Lee, the Conservative campaign chief, as the latest Tory figure to be looked at by the gambling regulator over an alleged election bet. Yesterday afternoon, before the allegations were made public, Lee took a leave of absence from his role within the party.

Needless to say, the Conservative campaign director is someone who you’d assume would have access to inside information about the election.

This story followed the revelation that Lee’s wife, Laura Saunders, is being looked into by the Gambling Commission over claims she placed a bet on the election date. Saunders, the Conservative candidate in Bristol North West, has worked for the party since 2015.

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On top of this, last night’s news about Saunders emerged just hours after the BBC revealed that a police officer in Sunak’s personal security detail had been arrested and suspended over allegations he placed a bet on the timing of the election.

But the rabbit hole runs deeper still. The story relating to Sunak’s protection officer broke a week after it was revealed that one of the prime minister’s closest aides “took a flutter” on the election date, days before it was announced. Craig Williams, who served as Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary, has since apologised for his actions. The Conservative candidate for Cardiff North is also under investigation by the Gambling Commission.

Of course, these stories matter legally because it is an offence to use inside information not available to others to gain an unfair advantage when placing a bet. But the situation, a fortnight away from polls opening, is also immensely politically potent.

Simply put, these stories hone in on pre-existing political vulnerabilities present in the Conservative Party — ones which Rishi Sunak’s opponents are already fast flagging.

So-called “sleaze scandals” became a staple of the political agenda prior to parliament’s dissolution in late May, with stories of alleged wrongdoing regularly splashing the newspaper frontpages. Sunak’s very decision to call an early election was likely informed, in part, by a desire to stop the rot. Even if the sleaze stories didn’t directly implicate the prime minister and his judgement, their effect was largely the same: a strengthened sense that the Tory party is in a state of decay.

Of course, there was also no disguising the fact that Sunak inadvertently made matters worse upon becoming prime minister by pledging to lead an administration with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. This bold remark — an approach that consciously accepted popular critiques of his predecessors — was not meant to refer to the individual behaviour of backbench MPs. But its interpretation quickly bounced out of Sunak’s control: never did a government so quickly make itself a hostage to fortune.

These fundamental facts, unfortunately for the Conservative campaign, remain the same in an election period — in fact, the political potency of such stories will be vastly heightened during a campaign. An election, naturally, intensifies the scrutiny applied to the political parties by the voting public, many of whom will be tuning into politics for the first time since the last campaign five years ago.

As such, “gamblegate” — rather like “partygate” — is very likely to cut through among the British public at large. The gambling story also mirrors the prime minister’s D-Day debacle in this respect: as a story that is being widely disseminated, is easy to understand and fits within a neat, prevailing narrative. Fair to say, we can expect allegations of politicians appearing to enrich themselves on their way out of office to resonate in a political climate characterised by distrust.

Accordingly, a longer-term observation is that this makes Keir Starmer’s task of rebuilding trust in public life far harder after the election. The Labour leader will exact a short-term political boost from this latest sleaze story (not that he needed one); referring to the case of Laura Saunders today, Starmer said: “If it was one of my candidates, they’d be gone and their feet would have not touched the floor”.

In time, however, it will be Starmer as prime minister who is forced to confront widespread disillusion with public life and politicians generally. For many, this won’t be a Conservative Party story — but a political class story. Forget the public finances then, this is the outgoing Tories effectively salting the earth in a far more profound manner.

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Lunchtime soundbite

‘I’m almost lost for words’

—  Speaking to Sky News, levelling up secretary Michael Gove reacts to the news that Tony Lee, the director of campaigns for the Conservative Party, is facing a Gambling Commission investigation.

He added: “You shouldn’t be using inside information to try to make a few hundred quid on the side. That is just not acceptable.”

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