All bets off on trust for the Tories as election gambling scandal engulfs campaign

The Conservatives are facing electoral meltdown after the scandal over betting on the election date engulfed the party’s top campaign team.

The party admitted its director of campaigning, Tony Lee, had “taken a leave of absence” hours after it was revealed that his wife, Laura Saunders, was being investigated by the Gambling Commission. Ms Saunders is the Tory candidate for Bristol North West and has worked for the party since 2015.

With the party’s electoral hopes in freefall, the forced departure of a senior campaign figure just two weeks before the polls open could not have come at a worse time for Rishi Sunak.

Meanwhile, a Redfield and Wilton poll has become the latest to put Reform UK ahead of the Tories, on 19 per cent against 18 per cent.

Laura Saunders and Tony Lee say they are cooperating with the Gambling Commission (Supplied)
Laura Saunders and Tony Lee say they are cooperating with the Gambling Commission (Supplied)

Reform leader Nigel Farage was quick to capitalise on the Tories’ problems, saying: “From all the news that’s breaking today, it looks like the Conservative Party is more corrupt than even its worst critics could have imagined. They are literally stealing the lightbulbs on the way out the door. This is another shocking scandal.”

Gallows humour among Tory MPs was summed up by former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who is facing defeat in his Chingford and Woodford Green seat. He told the News Agents podcast: “They say it is armageddon, but I armageddon on with it here in this constituency.”

The scandal, which also involves one of the police officers on Mr Sunak’s close protection team along with his chief parliamentary aide, Craig Williams, broke as postal voters are already completing and returning their ballots.

Tory candidates and MPs have told The Independent that the scandal, which comes in the wake of the outcry over Mr Sunak’s decision to make an early exit from a D-Day commemoration event earlier this month, is “absolutely killing” their hopes of getting elected.

MPs have lost all faith in Rishi Sunak (PA)
MPs have lost all faith in Rishi Sunak (PA)

Some are even understood to be discussing taking action to publicly disown the prime minister as a group before the election in a bid to survive, while dozens have privately confessed that they are already disowning Mr Sunak in conversations with voters on the doorstep.

Suspicion has been heightened after a data search carried out by the Financial Times appeared to show a surge in bets on a July election in the 24 hours before Mr Sunak made his surprise announcement, with up to £5,900 wagered just before 20 May.

The Metropolitan Police have suspended and arrested the unnamed protection officer who is alleged to have bet on the election date before it was announced.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has led calls for police to investigate the allegations.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross urged Mr Sunak to disown those involved. He said: “The investigation has been set up to look at these allegations, and if anyone is guilty of using [information] that they were privy to [in order] to place bets, to financially benefit from that, it is completely unacceptable, it is completely wrong, and they should no longer have the support.

“But there is an independent process, and I think it’s right that due process is allowed to continue.”

Tory grandee Sir Charles Walker, who is stepping down as an MP, insisted that the scandal would not affect the election result. He said: “Nobody is going to change their vote off the back of this.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer wants Tory candidates involved in the scandal to be suspended (PA)
Labour leader Keir Starmer wants Tory candidates involved in the scandal to be suspended (PA)

Michael Gove said it would be “reprehensible” for someone to use inside information to bet on the date of the general election.

“If people have used inside information to place bets, that is deeply wrong,” he said. “What I can’t do is get too much into the details of the case while an investigation is going on. But I can talk about the broad principle, and you’re absolutely right, it’s reprehensible.”

On the subject of the alleged betting, Labour’s campaign director Pat McFadden said: “What does it say about today’s Tory party that once again their first instinct was to fill their boots?”

The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Daisy Cooper, said: “Rishi Sunak must find his backbone and suspend Laura Saunders from the Conservative Party whilst this investigation is ongoing. It would be an utter disgrace if Conservative politicians were shown to be more focused on turning a quick buck rather than the needs of the country. Voters are sick to the back teeth of this endless carousel of chaos, sleaze and scandal.”

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “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. The director of campaigning took a leave of absence from CCHQ yesterday.”

A spokesperson for the Gambling Commission said it was “investigating the possibility of offences concerning the date of the election”, adding: “This is an ongoing investigation, and the commission cannot provide any further details at this time. We are not confirming or denying the identity of any individuals involved in this investigation.”

A Met Police spokesperson said: “We can confirm that on Friday, 14 June, the Met were contacted by the Gambling Commission, who informed us that they were investigating alleged bets made by a police constable from the Met’s Royalty and Specialist Protection Command, which were related to the timing of the general election.

“The matter was immediately referred to officers in the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards, who opened an investigation, and the officer was also removed from operational duties.

“The officer was subsequently arrested on Monday, 17 June, on suspicion of misconduct in public office. He was taken into custody and bailed pending further enquiries. The matter has also been referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

“The Gambling Commission continues to lead the investigation into the alleged betting offences, and our investigation is running in parallel to that.

“The Met is not currently carrying out any other criminal investigations for misconduct in public office relating to alleged betting offences linked to the election.”