Rishi Sunak suspends candidates linked to election betting scandal

Rishi Sunak has finally bowed to pressure and withdrawn the Conservative Party’s support for two candidates embroiled in the general election betting scandal.

The Tories have dropped Craig Williams and Laura Saunders, both of whom are linked to the prime minister’s inner circle and are under investigation by the Gambling Commission.

But two weeks after allegations first emerged even a Conservative former cabinet minister asked “why did it take so long”.

The commission is looking into alleged bets on the date of the election, made before Mr Sunak announced it would take place on 4 July.

Mr Sunak had withstood days of mounting calls to suspend those caught up in the row, with Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker the latest senior Tory to call for action.

In a bid to head off criticism on Monday, the prime minister announced the Conservatives were conducting their own probe into the row. Now the party says that “as a result of ongoing internal enquiries” it can no longer support either candidate.

Craig Williams served as the Prime Minister’s parliamentary private secretary (UK Parliament/PA) (PA Media)
Craig Williams served as the Prime Minister’s parliamentary private secretary (UK Parliament/PA) (PA Media)

Mr Williams, one of Mr Sunak’s closest aides as his parliamentary private secretary, appeared to admit placing a bet on the election date just days before the Tory leader announced it, saying he made a “huge error of judgement”.

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Meanwhile, Ms Saunders, who is running in Bristol North West and has worked for the party since 2015, is married to Tony Lee, the Conservative Party’s director of campaigns, who is also being probed by the gambling watchdog.

Despite being ditched by their party both Mr Williams - who is standing in Montgomeryshire and Glyndwr - and Ms Saunders will still be on ballot papers, as the deadline to change these has passed.

Mr Baker piled pressure on Mr Sunak on Monday when he told ITV: “I would call them up and ask them, ‘Did you do it?’ And if they did it, then they are suspended.

“But the prime minister would have to answer why he hasn’t done it, I haven’t got inside information on why the prime minister hasn’t done it.”

He joined senior Tories including Tobias Ellwood who also called for them to be suspended.

After the announcement, a Conservative former cabinet minister, Lord Frost, tweeted: “We get there in the end. But why did it take so long to come to a decision that seemed so necessary right from the start?”

Others tied to the Gambling Commission probe include the party’s chief data officer Nick Mason, who has taken a leave of absence from Tory HQ.

A close protection officer for the prime minister has also been suspended by the Metropolitan Police and is being investigated.

Responding to the suspensions, Sir Keir Starmer told reporters: “Why didn’t that happen a week ago?”

And shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth said: “It is yet another example of Rishi Sunak’s staggeringly weak leadership that it has taken him nearly two weeks to see what was obvious to everyone else.

Rishi Sunak had come under significant pressure to suspend the candidates (Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak had come under significant pressure to suspend the candidates (Getty Images)

“The Conservatives who sought to line their own pockets by betting on the election date are not fit to be candidates for parliament.”

Mr Ashworth also called on the prime minister to “come clean” about how many Conservative figures are implicated in the scandal and who they are.

He added: “Just as with Partygate and the PPE scandal, the Conservatives believe it is one rule for them, another for everyone else.”

The Gambling Commission has compiled a list of everyone who put a bet on a July general election after 1 May and is now “combing through the data and picking off people from that”, an industry source told The Independent.

Mr Williams placed a £100 bet with 5-1 odds, meaning he would have won £500, but would not have received a payout until after the contest. His suspension is a major blow for the party, as the seat he was contesting is the only one in Wales projected as a Tory win in a major seat-level YouGov poll last week.

Making the announcement, a Conservative Party spokesman said: “As a result of ongoing internal enquiries, we have concluded that we can no longer support Craig Williams or Laura Saunders as Parliamentary Candidates at the forthcoming General Election.