This betting scandal has exposed the rotten heart of our political class

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In the chaotic years running up to the 1997 general election, it was almost possible to feel sorry for John Major, who could hardly be blamed for the awful conduct of some of his ministers caught up in various scandals, sexual and financial.

In fact, especially with hindsight, the Conservatives’ plight as time moved relentlessly towards Judgment Day (or “polling day” as it was known) can be seen as a humorous topic. Laughter in the face of adversity is a very British trait.

But just as it is virtually impossible to feel sympathy for Rishi Sunak as he sinks under the waves of voter disapproval, so humour hardly serves to reflect the outrage felt towards those of the prime minister’s inner circle now accused of seeking to capitalise on their inside knowledge of general election timing.

It’s the arrogance that catches the breath, that makes one begin to doubt one’s sanity. Who are these would-be leeches who managed to inveigle their way into the highest reaches of the British establishment?

Consider the scenario: that a few people who enjoyed privileged access to the most secret thoughts of the prime minister seemingly became aware that Sunak was planning to spring a surprise on the nation by announcing a July 4 polling day. The fact that this was never deemed a likely date, thanks to the fact that it presented no obvious advantages for the incumbent party and, indeed, held a couple of obvious drawbacks for it, gave certain individuals a distinct advantage over Britain’s betting shops.

But the idea of being able to use inside information to make a few quid from Ladbroke’s by placing a bet on the date of the election must never have occurred to Sunak or to his grievously diminished pool of reliable, sensible, principled confidantes. Why should it? This is Britain, and such underhanded, cynical opportunism – not to mention potential criminality – is far beneath Downing Street.

Or at least it used to be.

We’re now into the territory of just how damaging this scandal is to Sunak’s electoral prospects, of measuring its impact compared with the scandals that afflicted John Major 30 years ago. In fact, none of that matters.

The writing was already on the wall for this Government by the time Sunak crossed Number 10’s threshold back in 2022. The public had had enough, deciding they weren’t going to change their minds. That’s a tough lesson to learn for the prime minister, but he should try anyway. No, the electoral consequences of this behaviour may be large, but they won’t matter – at least they won’t matter nearly as much as the damage they will have done to Britain, to its international reputation, to its aspirations to integrity, to the professionalism and public service commitment of those who govern us.

We – and by “we” I mean Rishi Sunak – seem to have allowed a bunch of rotters into the heart of the Government. We have every right to be angry that they were allowed through the front door.

As Henry Hill, editor of ConservativeHome has pointed out, the sums of the alleged bets and the potential returns were so small that the perpetrators can’t even claim that the risk was worth it. It’s almost as if the bets were placed not to make a killing but simply to stick two fingers up at the country. Just because they could.

So for yet another generation, Conservative Government will be synonymous with corruption and venality. The sums involved may be small but the reputational damage to the Government as a whole, to the Tory Party and to Sunak personally will be colossal. And it should be. These people seem to look down on us – all the evidence for that conclusion lies in their behaviour. And as we know, when someone tells us who they are, believe them.

Rishi Sunak’s most trusted aides have told us who they are. Believe them. But isn’t it at least a relief that they told us on this side of polling day instead of the other?