Campaign chief for UK PM Sunak's party steps aside in insider gambling scandal

By Muvija M

LONDON (Reuters) -The campaign chief for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservatives stepped aside two weeks before an election, the party said on Thursday, after reports he and his candidate wife were being investigated for betting on the election date.

The rapidly escalating gambling scandal is the latest misfortune to unfold for Sunak, who is forecast to lose power on July 4 after a campaign characterised by gaffes that followed his surprise announcement of an early vote.

The Conservative Party confirmed that campaign director Tony Lee had taken a leave of absence. The statement followed news reports that the Gambling Commission was looking into allegations of improper betting by Lee and his wife Laura Saunders, a candidate for parliament in Bristol.

British bookmakers allow bets on politics, and the timing of an election is a popular bet. But placing bets with insider knowledge is a crime.

"We have been contacted by the Gambling Commission about a small number of individuals. As the Gambling Commission is an independent body, it wouldn’t be proper to comment further, until any process is concluded," a Conservative spokesperson said.

The scandal has already engulfed another Conservative parliamentary candidate, Craig Williams, a close aide to Sunak, who apologised last week for placing a bet on when the election would happen.

London police said on Wednesday that they had arrested a police officer working in a special protection unit over alleged bets made on the timing of the election. The BBC reported the officer worked as one of Sunak's bodyguards.

A spokesperson for the Gambling Commission said it was investigating "the possibility of offences concerning the date of the election" but could not provide further details at this stage.

"We are not confirming or denying the identity of any individuals involved in this investigation," the spokesperson added.

Senior Conservative minister Michael Gove told LBC Radio it was "beyond bad to use insider information like that to secure an advantage".

Polls forecast the Conservatives are set to lose the July 4 election, potentially in an historic wipeout.

Sunak's party was already far behind in the polls when he announced the election, and has failed to narrow the gap after a campaign marred by blunders, including a decision by Sunak to leave early from a ceremony for the anniversary of D-Day.

($1 = 0.7870 pounds)

(Reporting by Muvija M, Editing by Kylie MacLellan)