What an election betting scandal says about British politics and culture

LONDON — Beset by an almost unending run of bad luck and embarrassing scandal, the ruling Conservative Party in Britain — expected to lose the election next week, big time — has taken a loaded gun and pointed it at their foot. Again.

At least five Conservative officials are being investigated by Britain’s gambling watchdog as part of a probe looking into their placing bets on the timing of the British general election, which is set for July 4.

It is a very British scandal — sordid, sad and amusing.

It is also being met with outsize revulsion by many voters. In a YouGov poll conducted Tuesday of 3,739 British respondents, 60 percent said that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was handling the betting scandal “fairly badly” or “very badly.” Only 16 percent said Sunak was handling the allegations “fairly well” or “very well.”

Like “Partygate,” in which aides to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson were seen carting suitcases of wine into Downing Street — for karaoke parties (and some vomiting in the stairwell) during the height of covid lockdown — this is the kind of scandal that the average person can understand.

The Conservative Party announced that it was withdrawing support from two Tory candidates for Parliament — Craig Williams and Laura Saunders — who are under investigation over alleged bets.


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Sunak described himself as “extremely angry.”

A Labour Party candidate also admitted placing a bet against himself.

Imagine someone in government sneaking off to place a low-level bet to make a few bob based on insider information — public service as profit center.

Brits can legally place a “flutter” — a bet — on almost anything: the discovery of an alien life form, the existence of God, whether Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce will get married.

It’s a nation of punters.

Betting markets are dominated by sport — soccer, rugby, and horse and dog racing — but there is also a popular subcategory of political betting. In the London borough of Westminster alone — home to Downing Street and the House of Commons — there are 140 or so gambling premises where one could put down a wager on various outcomes in the 2024 election.

We went over to a William Hill betting parlor on Wednesday, not a 10-minute walk from Downing Street, and put down 5 pounds on Labour to win and 5 pounds on Conservatives. Because we are nonpartisan.

If Labour wins, our payout will be 5.15 pounds. If the Tories win, we will get 255 pounds. Stay tuned.

The manager of the parlor, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to do so, was quick to point out that the scandal was big news in her shop.

“It’s like insider trading,” she said. Behind her, on the TV screens, the dogs were running and the horses jumping. A top payoff on a political bet, she said, could win 50,000 pounds.

The latest scandal to engulf the Conservative Party involves politicians betting on the date of the election and the possible misuse of privileged information.

On May 22, Sunak surprised many — though perhaps not all, wink wink — when he stood at a lectern outside of Downing Street, battling pouring rain, and announced that the date of the next election would be July 4.

BBC’s “Newsnight” has reported that up to 15 Conservative candidates and officials are being investigated by the Gambling Commission over allegations that they bet on when the general election would happen.

The widening scandal has also drawn in five Metropolitan police officers, who are under investigation for betting on the election date and on the opposition Labour Party. Labour has suspended a candidate after he bet he would lose his election bid on July 4.

The scandal has sparked a debate about whether politicians should be allowed to gamble on anything to do with politics. The gambling watchdog says that it may be an offense if someone uses confidential information when placing a wager to gain an unfair advantage.

Mel Stride, a Cabinet minister and ally of Sunak, told the Times Radio on Wednesday that there should be a debate about political betting. “But let me be very, very clear,” he added, “by saying that I totally recognize that using inside information, as may have been the case for certain individuals in this way, is utterly wrong.”

Sara Hobolt, a politics expert at the London School of Economics, said in a briefing to journalists this week that the Conservatives have suffered a series of what she called “competence shocks.”

The Conservatives have been trailing Labour in the polls since the end of 2021 and the first reports of Partygate. The scandal played a huge role in the toppling of Johnson, who was succeeded by Liz Truss, whose economic plan led to a run on the British pound. Her premiership famously didn’t outlast a wilting lettuce. That period was followed by high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.

“After those shocks, they never recovered,” Hobolt said.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party and probable next prime minister, was asked about the gambling scandal and whether politicians should be able to wager on politics. He told journalists on the campaign trail that the rules weren’t the problem, but politicians using insider information was.

Asked by the BBC if he had ever placed a bet himself, Starmer said he had not gambled on politics, but “yeah, I’ve bet on the horses, not a lot of money, but I have bet on horses.”

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