Whatever the sums involved, the election betting scandal will linger in public’s minds

<span>Before Sunak announced the July election on 22 May, few had expected a date to be set before the summer.</span><span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Before Sunak announced the July election on 22 May, few had expected a date to be set before the summer.Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

When Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, called a snap election in the pouring rain last month, he would have hoped his party would have closed at least some of the 20-point deficit in the opinion polls.

Instead, it seems the only members of his party who have profited since are some of his Downing street aides – in a political betting scandal that has swiftly reinforced prevailing anti-Conservative stereotypes in the British public’s imagination.

A week ago, the Guardian revealed that Craig Williams, Rishi Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary, an otherwise obscure politician with an intimate knowledge of Downing Street, had placed a £100 bet on his boss calling an early general election in July.

The odds were 5-1, hardly enough to be worth risking a reputation over. But even though Williams stood to gain only £500, he thought it worth placing a bet on Sunday 19 May with a rural Welsh bookmaker.

Three days later, a rain-soaked Sunak made his surprise announcement, asking the British public on 22 May: “Who do you trust?” Before that Wednesday morning, few had expected an election to be called before the summer.

Williams’ bet raised the question of whether word of the prime minister’s plan had spread and he was relying on inside information, and the industry’s regulator, the Gambling Commission, began an inquiry. Betting on an event of which you already know the outcome is illegal in English and Welsh law.

However, it was a question the gilet-wearing Williams studiously avoided when the BBC caught up with him on the street the day after. “I’m not expanding, because it is an independent process,” Williams said as the television cameras followed him, although he was willing to admit the bet was “a huge error of judgment”.

Political scandals in Britain do not have to involve large sums of money, but they linger in the public imagination if they feel politicians have been acting with impunity. Fifteen years ago, dozens of MPs were forced out after an expenses scandal. One Conservative quit after asking taxpayers to pay £1,645 for an ornamental duck house.

More pertinently, Sunak’s predecessor as prime minister but one, Boris Johnson, was forced out of office two years ago over another scandal: the “Partygate” affair.

Johnson, aides and advisers, it emerged, had held a string of parties and drinks events in Downing Street during the coronavirus crisis, at times when the British public were forced to remain at home, unable even to visit sick or dying relatives.

The Gambling Commission has widened its investigation, looking at last-minute bets on a July election where anybody stood to gain more than the relatively modest sum of £199. Other data already suggested that several gamblers were making last-minute online bets on a surprise July election.

A Guardian analysis shows that a sudden flood of bets on a July election was placed on Tuesday 21 May on the Betfair Exchange, before Sunak had even told his own cabinet of senior politicians that the early election was going ahead.

Between January and May, an average of £27 a day was gambled on Sunak calling a general election in July, and most people bet just a few pounds on what was seen as an unlikely outcome.

Then, the day before Sunak’s announcement, a total £3,285 was gambled on Betfair in dozens of bets. Some punters stuck on hundreds of pounds, suggesting serious confidence and driving the odds down.

Although the data came from only one specialist online bookmaker, it immediately suggested the scale of bets across the whole industry may have been more substantial – as the Gambling Commission’s own inquiries appear to be bearing out.

On Monday, a police bodyguard, whose job it was to protect Sunak from terror attacks and other physical threats, was arrested after allegedly placing a bet on the timing of the election. Then on Thursday, it emerged that two more Conservatives might be involved.

Laura Saunders, the party’s candidate in Bristol North West, was under scrutiny over an election day bet, the BBC revealed. Her husband, Tony Lee, the party’s director of campaigns, was immediately placed on leave of absence, and the Conservatives were forced to admit that “a small number of individuals” were being investigated.

Britain’s opposition Labour party, already firm favourites for a landslide victory, barely had to say anything, although one party spokesperson leaned into the idea that the affair reflected a Conservative sense of entitlement.

Pat McFadden, the party’s national campaign coordinator, said he did not understand why it was only the police officer that had been suspended: “This looks as if there is one rule for members of the Tory [Conservative] party, and another rule for everybody else.”