Campaign catchup: Tories dropped, sewage dumped, Bridgerton ruined

<span>Rishi Sunak delivers a speech at a campaign event on Monday.</span><span>Photograph: Benjamin Cremel/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Rishi Sunak delivers a speech at a campaign event on Monday.Photograph: Benjamin Cremel/AFP/Getty Images

Good afternoon. If you were a certain kind of world-weary Tory official today, you might conclude: the real scandal is how crap we are. I am referring, of course, to the news that finally came this morning of the Conservative party withdrawing support from two candidates who have been accused of making suspicious bets on the timing of the election.

The Guardian’s Pippa Crerar first broke this story on 12 June, when she revealed that Craig Williams, the candidate for Montgomeryshire and Glyndŵr, had bet £100 on a July vote. Williams himself swiftly admitted the bet, if not foreknowledge of the result, but no action from his party followed. As Keir Starmer quite reasonably asked earlier today, in a rare moment of harmony with exasperated Tory candidates: “Why didn’t that happen a week ago?”

More on why it didn’t – and the five police officers who were also revealed to be under investigation today – plus another Reform candidate with pungent things to say about Putin and Hitler, after the headlines.

What happened today

  1. Labour | Keir Starmer has vowed to make tackling knife crime a “moral mission” at an emotional meeting with victims’ families and the actor and campaigner Idris Elba. Elba later said: “As someone that might be taking the hot seat, it was really important to hear what he had to say about his plans … Today he listened.”

  2. Reform | Nigel Farage’s party dipped in two polls released on Tuesday, by three points to 15%, according to JL Partners, and by two points to 14%, according to Savanta. The Tories gained slightly in both polls. Savanta said “the Conservative death spiral appears to have halted or at least slowed for now”.

  3. Scotland | The Daily Record gave Labour its sole endorsement for the first time since 2010, saying on its front page that “this election is not about independence” above an image of the five Conservative prime ministers of the last 14 years under a “demon eyes” graphic.

Analysis: What took him so long?

You will remember that after Craig Williams’ admission of a “flutter” to the Guardian, and his frank acknowledgment to the BBC the next day that he had made a “huge error of judgment”, another Tory candidate, Laura Saunders, was named as a second subject of the Gambling Commission’s investigation over a similar bet.

Then it turned out Saunders is married to Tony Lee, the Conservative director of campaigning, who is also being looked into by the Gambling Commission and has had to take an unfortunately timed leave of absence. At the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that the party’s chief data officer, Nick Mason, was also under investigation after allegedly placing dozens of bets, and was also on leave.

Meanwhile, a police officer who is a member of Sunak’s close protection team was arrested and removed from operational duties after the force was contacted by the Gambling Commission; the Metropolitan police said today that the Commission has alleged five other officers placed bets and were under investigation.

Those are the allegations. The other way to navigate this story is to look at the Conservative party’s response. First of all, Downing Street declined to comment. Then David Cameron said Williams had been “very foolish” but should remain in place as a candidate because it was too late to remove his nomination. Laura Saunders, for her part, did not deny placing a bet but accused the BBC of an invasion of privacy.

Rishi Sunak said he was “incredibly angry”, but repeated what had become the line to take – that he could not comment further because an investigation was under way and that the Gambling Commission investigation should run its course. As recently as last night, the prime minister said that “the right thing to do is to get to the bottom of this and investigate this properly”.

This is a very abbreviated version of the contortions the Conservatives have found themselves in until today. To be persuaded by the previous line, you need to think that there was no earthly way for the party to reach its own conclusions about what had happened short of a Gambling Commission finding. (As Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker said: why didn’t Sunak just “call them up and ask them, ‘did you do it?’”)

That already looked like a stretch when I ate my cereal this morning, and the public certainly wasn’t buying it: a Savanta poll found that almost two-thirds thought the candidates should not be allowed to stand. It became utterly hopeless when the Gambling Commission said this morning that while any criminal investigations should remain confidential, “this does not preclude other activity relating to the fact of an investigation taking place” – in other words, suspending the people involved.

A bit more than an hour later, the Conservative party said that it could “no longer support Craig Williams or Laura Saunders” as candidates because of its own “ongoing internal inquiries”. Maybe someone asked them about it after all. Williams said today that he committed “an error of judgment, not an offence”.

He also said he would fight on despite being dropped by Sunak, and even though they won’t get any party resources, both candidates are still on the ballot paper. Saunders had no chance of winning her seat of Bristol North West, where Labour already have a majority of 5,700. Williams’ seat was the only one in Wales where a Tory win was projected by YouGov last week, but that seems impossible now. In Rochdale, when Azhar Ali was abandoned by Labour after suggesting that Israel had allowed Hamas’s 7 October attack to happen, he got less than 8% of the vote – down 22,000 on 2019.

Starmer’s question gets at the really perplexing thing about all this, and he’s not the only one to be scratching his head: as the Conservative peer (and Sunak critic) David Frost asked, “why did it take so long to come to a decision that seemed so necessary right from the start?”

You don’t need any insight from some obscure corner of political science to divine this: any two bob newsletter writer could have told you ages ago that this was a terrible story for the Tories, and that dragging it out would just make it worse. Attempts to muddy the picture – like the dubious claim that splashed the Daily Telegraph this morning that alleged leaks from the Met could lead to the force being “accused of interfering with the outcome of the election itself” – only made the whole thing look even more desperate.

Any claims from the Tories that their hands were tied have now been obliterated by the Gambling Commission – and there is no good reason why they couldn’t have figured that out much sooner.

One conceivable explanation is that Sunak was loath to throw Williams, his parliamentary aide, under the bus – which isn’t a great look, since it suggests he didn’t take this all that seriously. Another is that there were fears that abandoning two previously low-profile candidates could force Sunak’s hand if anyone more prominent was caught up in the affair. Sunak said that he was not aware of any others being investigated, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t nervous about what he might subsequently learn.

To be honest, though, the other explanation looks more credible to me: that the wartime mentality of a campaign operation under siege made kneejerk defensiveness more attractive than pausing to think. There is no good reason, in other words, other than incompetence. If this wasn’t on your list of why the Conservatives are doing badly, it certainly should be by now.

What’s at stake

In 2009, a year before the Conservatives first took power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a quarter of English rivers were judged as being of good ecological standard. By 2022, not one river was in a healthy state. Today, the dumping of raw sewage is a routine feature of how privatised water companies operate, while even treated effluent has devastating effects on biodiversity and raises concerns about the impact on human health.

In a piece for a Guardian series on the impact of Conservative rule, Sandra Laville takes a journey along the River Thames to examine how the sharp increase in sewage has become a crucial political issue:

To trace the decline of the Thames is to tell a story shared by almost every river across the country, more than 30 years after a Conservative government privatised the water industry – creating a sector which, the evidence suggests, has prioritised shareholder dividends over investment in clean water, the environment and public health. For voters, including many in Tory heartlands, the polluting of Britain’s rivers is among the most egregious legacies of 14 years of Conservative rule.

In Fairford, four miles from the source, a tributary to the Thames, the River Coln, has been subjected to relentless sewage discharges – with 44 days of raw sewage pouring in for 44 days in January and February. At Molesey, near Hampton Court, rowing club coach Helen Taylor is one of many to notice an increase in sewage discharges and more sickness and infection as a result.

But there are reasons for hope, too. In the water meadows around Pangbourne, the writer Nick Hayes lives on a boat, and has noticed an explosion in leisure use that has led to a corresponding rise in public concern:

Cultural change in the people is usually the most noted way of creating change in Westminster. Today people from all walks of life care about the river, they have regained that sense of belonging with it, they feel connected and with that comes a feeling of civil responsibility and a desire to be its guardians, which is very exciting.

“This is about telling a different story, one that makes the current orthodoxy – an orthodoxy which has left the river visibly fucked – seem abhorrent.”

Winner of the day

Danish voters, who were the least likely in a poll of seven European countries to think that their country is in a “very bad” or “fairly bad” state – a view shared by just 25% of them. British voters comfortably topped the list, with 80% giving the same answer. But they were only third in the table of pessimism about the future – top of that ranking were the French, 50% of whom thought the state of their country would get worse in the next twelve months. Jon Henley has the story.

Loser of the day

Bridgerton, after the Netflix series got the dreaded Rishi Sunak endorsement as his favourite show in the Radio Times. Expect audience numbers to plummet and several of its stars to be plunged into a disorienting scandal within the next few days. Keir Starmer didn’t answer – fairly predictably, given his mysterious reticence on his favourite novel. Ed Davey went for shows he watches with his children including Horrible Histories and Something Special, and Nigel Farage picked Baby Reindeer, as if you didn’t feel weird enough about watching it.

Just another Reform candidate being weird about Putin of the day

It’s Julian Malins, who was booed at a constituency hustings when he said that he once met the Russian president and thought he “seemed very good” and was not “the Austrian gentleman with a moustache come alive again”. He later clarified that he did not think he was good “in the Christian sense” (and that it was “the usual practice in worldwide media not to refer to Hitler by name”). It all seems especially unfortunate given Malins is the candidate for … Salisbury, where voters may have their own views on Putin’s record.

Meanwhile: inspiring Spice Girls rhetoric from one of Nigel Farage’s outriders at his event yesterday.

Quote of the day

I feel partially responsible but I don’t feel responsible for leaving D-day early, I don’t feel responsible for the Reform party which was on 4% in October 2022 being on nearly 20% now. I don’t feel responsible for the election betting scandal, nor do I feel responsible for the fact that this election has happened way before anyone was expecting it.

Liz Truss’s chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng takes up his berth in the circular firing squad

Number of the day

***

400m

Estimated ad impressions on Facebook and Instagram for Labour and the Conservatives during the campaign, according to WhoTargetsMe. Labour have spent 63% of the £3m expenditure on these ads between the two parties, but are spending considerably less for each impression – £4.94 per thousand impressions vs £6.27 for the Tories. For more see the latest edition of Full Disclosure, WhoTargetsMe’s substack.

Dubious photo opportunity of the day

We’re taking a break from the main parties today to bring you King Arthur Pendragon, who is running for a fifth time in Salisbury. He is fighting for “truth, honour and justice”. And also for an end to £15 parking charges at Stonehenge. To get a sense of his leisurewear vibe, incidentally, go back up a couple of sections and look to Julian Malins’ left.

Andrew Sparrow explains it all

The pick of the posts from the king of the live blogs

08.41 BST | Nick Thomas-Symonds, a shadow Cabinet Office minister, has been giving interviews for Labour this morning, and on Times Radio he said that if the party got into government, it might discover the public finances to be in an “even worse” situation than anticipated.

Asked about the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report yesterday saying both main parties were not being honest about the choices they would face after the election, he replied: “We may open the books and discover the situation is even worse than it is at the moment.”

Opposition parties sometimes suggest that, when they get into office and have a chance to “look at the books”, they will discover hidden horrors that will require tax measures not previously planned … But in reality, particularly since the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which publishes an independent and extremely detailed analysis of the public finances twice a year, most of the key information about the state of the public finances is already in the public domain.

Follow Andrew Sparrow’s politics live blog every day here

Read more

Listen to this

Today in Focus: McSweeney and Gray – the powers behind Keir Starmer

After Labour’s 2019 election defeat, Keir Starmer vowed to transform the party. Who are the advisers who have helped him shape it? Jessica Elgot reports

What’s on the grid

Tomorrow, 5pm | Deadline to apply for a proxy vote. Do it here.

Tomorrow, 8.15pm | Second head-to-head debate between Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak on BBC One.