Why Britain's murky election betting scandal is causing outrage

Rishi Sunak’s gamble was a big one. Five weeks ago, the British prime minister gambled on his belief that a summer election would give his Conservative Party a better chance of holding on to power than waiting until the autumn.

Calling a snap election was Sunak’s last throw of the dice. But it has since emerged that in the days before he announced to the country in the pouring rain on May 22 that he was going to the polls, a number of colleagues and underlings were placing bets of a more literal kind.

Looking at data from the week before Mr Sunak’s announcement, bookmakers noticed a spike in bets placed on the election date. The amounts wagered were small, totalling just a few thousand pounds, but the sudden flurry of activity was enough to warrant further investigation.

The question of whether these bets were made by political officials, using insider knowledge of Sunak’s intentions to make a quick profit, has come to dominate what could be the Conservatives’ final days in power. It also encapsulates how some parts of the electorate perceive the party that has governed Britain for 14 years.

“This has reinforced previous public concerns,” said Luke Tryl, executive director of More in Common, a research group. “It gets right to the heart of the matter: ‘One rule for them and one rule for everyone else.’”

Craig Williams, one of Mr Sunak's top parliamentary aides and a Conservative candidate running for office, was the first to come under scrutiny after The Guardian reported he had placed a bet on the July election on May 19, three days earlier of the prime minister's announcement. Now suspended from the campaign, he admitted an “error of judgement” but insisted he had not committed a criminal offence.

As the Gambling Commission, the regulator that oversees Britain's rich and diverse gambling industry, expanded its investigation, a number of other senior Conservative staffers were named under investigation.

Among them were Tony Lee, the party's campaigns director, and his wife, Laura Saunders, a potential Conservative candidate in the next election, who has since been suspended from the party.

Nick Mason, the Conservatives' director of data, has taken a leave of absence after being told he too is under investigation. There are rumours that a number of other Conservative staff could soon be identified by the inquiry.

One of the officers protecting Mr Sunak, meanwhile, has been arrested on suspicion of also betting on the timing of the election, and the Metropolitan Police has confirmed it is investigating a number of other law enforcement officials.

The scandal is yet another blow for Sunak, who is campaigning not so much to win the elections, scheduled for July 4, but to stave off his party's potential losses.

He had already caused a stir after leaving the 80th anniversary commemorations of D-Day early to conduct a television interview, a decision for which he later apologized profusely. He then faced widespread ridicule after claiming that he had known hardship as a child because his parents had not allowed him to have satellite television.

The gambling allegations compounded that damage, pollsters said, adding to the sense of an out-of-touch party that seemed to consider itself above ethical concerns.

What was potentially most corrosive was “the perception that we operate outside the rules we set for others,” Michael Gove, one of the highest-profile Conservative lawmakers, told the Sunday Times. “This was damaging in the Partygate era,” he said, referring to the scandal over Boris Johnson's lockdown-breaking Downing Street parties during the pandemic, “And it's damaging here too.”

Political betting is a growing industry: more than $1.5 billion has been bet on the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election, making it arguably the largest gambling event of all time. However, markets that predict when elections might be called are, according to insiders, inherently niche.

According to a longtime political betting expert, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the industry, they are, in effect, run as novelties, designed to attract publicity and, hopefully, new customers.

They are not designed, he said, to generate large profits. Bookmakers simply aim not to lose money on them, assuming that there will be people, not only legislators but also various party apparatchiks, who have access to better information than they do. To limit their losses, they limit the amount of money anyone can stake on the market.

Bets made in the days just before Mr Sunak's announcement fall into this category. Mr Williams, for example, is accused of betting just £100 ($125), for winnings that would have extended to a few hundred pounds. “These are not life-changing sums for senior political figures,” said Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, a public opinion consultancy.

Indeed, it was precisely the small size of the market that alerted the authorities to unusual activity: in a market like horse racing or football, the spike would hardly have been noticed.

Britain has a curious relationship with betting, perhaps best illustrated by its place within sport. In football, for example, as in baseball, players are absolutely prohibited from betting on their sport.

Last year, England striker Ivan Toney was banned for six months for gambling. Lucas Paquetá, a Brazilian midfielder, could be banned for life if found guilty of gambling in matches in which he took part. He has strenuously denied the accusations.

Both Mr Toney and Mr Paquetá, however, play for club teams – Brentford and West Ham respectively – which were sponsored last season by gambling companies. They play in stadiums plastered with betting agency logos. And Brentford's owner, Matthew Benham, bought the club with money earned in his highly successful career as a professional sports gambler.

This kind of cognitive dissonance around gambling is familiar in Britain. If gambling takes place in one of the thousands of betting shops on the country's high streets, it is seen as a social plague, a disturbing and pernicious addiction.

If it’s at Royal Ascot and you’re wearing a nice hat, it’s the social event of the season. It was telling that Williams, the prime minister’s aide, described his bet as a “flutter” – a Britishism for a small bet, a bet that is inherently trivial, harmless and fun.

Experts say the election scandal resonated with voters not because they disapprove of gambling in general, but because of what it suggested about the ethics of the ruling party.

“It encapsulates what everyone was already thinking,” Mr. Twyman said. “It reinforces an existing narrative that has been built around the historical issues of Partygate. And it has an opportunity cost: people are talking about that, rather than what the Conservatives want them to talk about.”

The extent to which it has reached ordinary people is breathtaking, according to More in Common’s Tryl. His data suggests that the betting scandal, along with Sunak’s D-Day gaffes and his comments on cable TV, have become the campaign’s defining issues.

The charges have not made much difference in the polls, but that should be a small relief for the Conservatives, Mr. Tryl said, because it reflects not how little the public cares but how much the electorate has already turned against his party. “A lot of people have already left,” he said.

That's certainly the bookies' view: the Conservatives are currently given 70/1 odds to retain power on July 4.

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