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25 June 2024

Rishi Sunak has turned the betting scandal into a catastrophe

Disavowing Craig Williams as a candidate was inevitable. Why did it take the party so long?

By Rachel Cunliffe

Sometimes politics has a crushing inevitability about it. It was inevitable, for example, that once it had been reported that Craig Williams (until recently Tory MP for Montgomeryshire and parliamentary private secretary to the prime minister) had placed a bet on the date of the election just before it was called, the Conservatives would be forced to disavow him as a candidate. 

It was not inevitable, however, that it would take them almost two weeks to do so, needlessly prolonging the damage as the scandal grew and ensuring the second half of the election campaign would be utterly derailed.

Nonetheless, it took Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Campaign Headquarters until nine days out from polling day to give in and announce that Williams has lost the support of the party. This also applies to Laura Saunders, the second Tory candidate embroiled in the scandal, who is standing in (Labour-held) Bristol North. It is too late to take either of the candidates off the list (that was already the case when the story first broke) and so their names will appear as Conservatives on the ballot paper. But they will be unable to campaign as such. At least Conservative spokespeople will have an easier time when asked about this whole sorry mess in interviews.

“As a result of ongoing internal inquiries, we have concluded that we can no longer support Craig Williams or Laura Saunders as parliamentary candidates at the forthcoming general election,” said a Conservative spokesperson. “We have checked with the Gambling Commission that this decision does not compromise the investigation that they are conducting, which is rightly independent and ongoing.”

It is unlikely that this will stem the bleeding. To date, those being investigated as part of this betting scandal include not just Williams and Saunders, but Tony Lee (Saunders’s husband who also happened to be the Tories’ election campaign director, before he was forced to take a leave of absence last week), the party’s chief data officer Nick Mason, and one of Sunak’s close protection officers, who has been arrested. All are currently being investigated by the Gambling Commission – which was, until recently, the fig-leaf Sunak and others were hiding behind. There are rumours of more investigations into other officials – so don’t be surprised if further revelations come to light in the final days of the campaign. 

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But let’s say for the sake of argument that this is the extent of the matter and no more names are forthcoming. The damage has still been done. For two weeks, this has been the issue dominating the news cycle. And for two weeks, Sunak’s response has been to pretend it isn’t happening. 

He has insisted, until now, that it was not right to comment or take action while investigations were ongoing. This is, essentially, a rerun of “Waiting for Sue Gray’s report”, the catch-all phrase used by Boris Johnson and his ministers for months during the partygate scandal, to avoid having to discuss the allegations. Then as now, the hope seemed to be that the issue could be kicked down the road until the public forgot about it; then as now, the public weren’t buying it. Polls for both YouGov and More In Common have found that the betting story has had remarkable cut-through – and is viewed as more damaging than any election gaffe other than Sunak skipping out on D-Day.

The public could see what the official response today makes clear: this prevarication was nonsense. Williams had admitted placing a bet. What was there to investigate? And how would withdrawing support from him while the investigation was ongoing jeopardise it in any way?

Suspending Williams from the get-go would not have made the story go away, but it would have sent the message that Sunak understood the gravity of the situation and was taking appropriate action. It would have been embarrassing, but the party would have maintained a degree of credibility. Now, even that is gone.

Sunak ought to be particularly sensitive to this given the flak he himself has taken for getting a partygate fine: he was present at the Johnson birthday cake event, having turned up early for a meeting. Many supporters of the prime minister still consider that fine unfair, but Sunak and his advisers should still be aware of how much it resonates. It was raised by a despairing former Tory member at the Sky News leaders event, who said she was “ashamed” of the party. The idea that Conservative politicians and officials don’t feel the rules apply to them is one of the key reasons the party his haemorrhaging support even among its core voters. This stuff – trust, integrity, accountability – matters hugely. 

Why drag it out? “A rare error from the PM, who has thus far been peerless in his successful party management,” quipped a Tory adviser familiar with the campaign. But this isn’t just Sunak’s error: it’s the error of everyone around him too. After the D-Day debacle, it should be obvious that the prime minister’s judgement is not to be trusted. He is a diligent worker, but one who even Tories sympathetic to his predicament freely acknowledge has no political instincts. He never had to cultivate any to become an MP nor to rise to the top. But now he’s there, searching for answers in spreadsheets and focus groups, the absence of that kind of political acumen is showing. So why didn’t anyone on his top team take him to one side and explain to him, gently but firmly, that hiding behind an investigation would make a bad situation catastrophic?

The answer I’ve been told in the past is inexperience. Many of Sunak’s team are young, working for him has been their first big politics job, and they just don’t have the level of expertise needed for this type of gruelling campaign. But you didn’t need experience to be able to see where this row would end up – with the withdrawal of support to Williams and any other candidates under investigation. You didn’t need experience to surmise that a scandal encapsulating the existing sense of “one rule for us and another for them” would resonate. It was inevitable. 

So I can only surmise two alternatives. Either Sunak is so thin-skinned and insecure he has surrounded himself with people who are simply so enamoured of him that, even at this dire stage of the campaign, they refuse to point out that his judgement could possibly be flawed. Or he is so thin-skinned and insecure he wouldn’t listen to them even if they did. This is, after all, the team that came up with “Let Rishi be Rishi.”

[See also: Labour’s women problem]

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