The Tory Betting Scandal Is About More Than Just Rule Breaking

They’re not like the last lot. Promise.

by Steven Methven

24 June 2024

Rishi Sunak during a general election campaign event, June 2024. Phil Noble/Reuters

A rag-tag bunch of Rishi Sunak adjacents have found themselves at the centre of a political – and potentially criminal – scandal. That’s after the Gambling Commission launched an investigation into a flurry of flutters placed on a 4 July election just days before the prime minister announced the date. 

Now, we all know nothing tastes better than slow-cooked schadenfreude, but let’s briefly set that aside. Because while the Tory party collapses under the combined mass of its officials’ alleged self-interest, the fallout from its punt problem tells us something about the fragility of both main parties’ electoral strategies.

On Saturday it was reported that the Tory party’s chief data officer Nick Mason was under investigation by the Gambling Commission. He’s alleged to have placed dozens of bets on the election date – with combined potential winnings in the thousands of pounds – before Sunak announced it. The party has confirmed he’s taken a leave of absence. Also suddenly on leave is the Tories’ director of campaigning Tony Lee who, along with his wife, Tory candidate for Bristol North West Laura Saunders, came under the scrutiny of the gambling regulator last week. Before that, Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary and Tory MP Craig Williams was revealed to have placed a £100 bet on the election date three days prior to Sunak naming it. And a member of Sunak’s close protection team has been arrested in connection to the alleged bets. 

A group of Tories allegedly gambling their way to a payoff through their access to power? Even in this irony-soaked timeline, less than two years after the last Tory prime minister was compared to a “gambler in a casino”, the revelations are a little on the nose. But in politics, every misfortune is also an opportunity – though usually for someone else. In this case, it could have been Sunak’s. And yet the prime minister failed to act.

Saunders and Williams both remain candidates in the upcoming election after Sunak refused to suspend them, leading to outrage from Tories still hoping to retain their seats. One former minister and current candidate told the i newspaper that it was a “f**king disgrace”, while another said Sunak had failed to act “due to him having no backbone and protecting his mates”. Given how frequently Tory conduct suggests that “protect your mates” is the golden rule of the party’s constitution, we can only surmise that it’s electoral rather than moral heat bringing Tory hopefuls to the boil. 

But it was left to the Tories’ resident Machiavelli to give the knife its terminal twist. “It looks like one rule for them and one rule for us,” levelling up secretary Michael Gove told the Times. “That was damaging at the time of partygate and is damaging here.”

Did you hear Mortal Kombat’s “Finish Him!!” clanging in your ears? Gove – one of 80 Conservative MPs to quit parliamentary politics (for now) ahead of next week’s expected blue-pocalypse – couldn’t have calculated a better fatality. In linking the conduct of Sunak’s close allies to that of Johnson at the height of the pandemic, Gove deftly erased the buffer Sunak has spent years building between his own premiership and the last but one. That, after all, is at the heart of Sunak’s electoral message. “Judge me on my record,” he likes to say. My record. Not Johnson’s, not Truss’s. As platform’s go, “I’m not like the last lot” was never strong; but it might as well be made of pre-sucked paper straws when your most loyal voters start to think well, actually, you are.

With reports swirling that more top Tories are in the Gambling Commission’s sights (and even suggestions that a cabinet minister is among them), Sunak’s headache isn’t likely to fade anytime soon. This will delight Labour; if the Tories are occupying the headlines, the odds of a bump-free ride to polling day improve. And the media’s focus on juicy matters of conduct – always much easier to assess than vaguely stated policies or underwhelming economics  – will usefully distract from thornier issues like the two-child benefit cap and forever austerity.

But Labour’s message is fragile too. Not as fragile as Sunak’s, of course, but just as dependent on positive comparison to the past. The vacuous “Change” has the advantage that voters can project all their hopes onto it. But its core concept is equally “we’re not like the last lot”. How true that is, and whether in essential ways, only time will tell. It’s a sign of how rancid 14 years of Tory rule – not over yet guys! – have been that even Keir Starmer’s frequently aired history of political dishonesty hasn’t been able to dent that concept’s appeal. A neat trick for a first term, but by the second, Starmer’s Labour will be “the last lot”. Will it have, by then, the record to run confidently on “More” against a resurgent rightwing populist party like Reform, freely promising change of both a more substantial and more harrowing kind?

The simplest form of bet is a coin toss. Based on the cagey nature of Labour’s current offering, that may be the best we’ve got. But on the question of the Tories’ end – now and perhaps even for decades? Those odds I like.

Steven Methven is a writer and researcher for Novara Media’s live YouTube show Novara Live.

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