Les jeux sont faits

James Butler

A bookmaker outside the Houses of Parliament, 23 May 2024. Photo © Amer Ghazzal / Alamy

The gambling scandal seems likely to poison the last days of the election campaign and the end of Rishi Sunak’s tenure. It is an appropriate scandal for the last rites of this government: tawdry, sloppy and – most characteristic – small-time. At the core of the scandal are a number of senior Tory candidates and campaign officials, as well as some police officers, who appear to have bet on an election date they already knew was fixed. This is, plainly, corruption: the use of private information gained from public duty for personal enrichment. In yesterday evening’s BBC debate, the last of the campaign, Starmer seized on the issue: Sunak had to be bullied into taking action by the Gambling Commission. More striking is the attack he did not make: that the spirit of self-enrichment is so ingrained, and the habit of corruption so ordinary, that it didn’t occur to any of the candidates that what they were doing would be a problem, or that they would ever get caught.

Starmer may have felt the prime minister’s vacillating character, rather than the avarice of his underlings, was the more important target. But he is feeling the heat too: the Gambling Commission has extended its investigation to candidates of any party placing any kind of bet on the election. Labour ‘suspended’ Kevin Craig, its candidate in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, though he will still appear on the ballot; the party has also committed to returning a £100,000 donation he made before his selection for the seat. Craig had bet that he would lose: pessimistic, consolatory bets of this kind are not uncommon among candidates. Usually the amounts concerned are small: enough to fund a round or two for miserable staffers. The most famous in recent memory was a bet made against enthusiastic polls by Charles Kennedy in the 1994 European elections: he made £2500 on a wager that the Liberal Democrats would gain only two seats, rather than the predicted eleven. (The money went into party coffers.) Larger bets, like the £8000 Philip Davies is supposed to have bet against himself in Shipley, are queasier proposals, although he’s so obviously going to lose that it’s quite impressive he found a bookie prepared to take it.

The Gambling Commission made clear to ITV’s Robert Peston that widening the scope of its investigation was supposed to demonstrate that it was not interfering against the Conservatives – though its legitimacy may now be less clear-cut. It has unhelpfully muddied the central issue. The initial cases concern the use of certain and secret information to guarantee a payout: the equivalent of insider trading. The Met Police are now conducting a parallel investigation into potential misconduct in public office. In the wider set of cases, no secret information or private advantage is in play. This makes them distinct in kind, though it does not make them ethically immaculate: a belief in public probity ought to forestall candidates from betting on an election at all.

The use of public office for private gain is inarguably corruption. But the gambling lobby is ripe for fuller investigation. In recent years, fearful of greater regulation, the industry has ramped up its spending on politicians, both by individual companies and through the Betting and Gaming Council, its lobbying entity. The BGC, headed by the splenetic former Labour MP Michael Dugher, has been credibly accused of misleading parliamentary committees over the risk of black market betting as a response to greater regulation. The industry’s hospitality to parliamentarians was the pretext for the Times sting which felled Scott Benton last year. Other questions about the gambling lobby’s influence – how close it is to the right of the Labour Party, or whether bookmakers treat bets by politicians with greater laxity than ordinary clients – remain unexamined.

The scandal could easily blow over, especially if the number of MPs placing bets turns out to be so high that everyone decides to look the other way. Or it could mutate unpredictably, as the expenses scandal once did. But it ought to reach beyond the question of the individual moral depravity of MPs, rich though that seam can be, to the failure of systems to check corruption or even their tendency to enable it. Any serious inquiry would look at the lobbying register, an underrated blight from the Cameron years, so easy to circumvent it may as well not exist. It might also ask whether characters such as Lord Mandelson, twice compelled to resign from government on suspicion of dodgy dealing, could plausibly be thought to have separated his lobbying interests as a director (until last week) of Global Counsel – whose client list remains private – and his activity as a legislator. The dominant and most pervasive form of corruption is not mere personal enrichment but state capture.

Geoffrey Searle’s book on late Victorian and Edwardian political corruption opens with the epigram that it is the easiest accusation to make and the hardest to disprove. Corruption is always a latent risk in the character of politicians, likely to be cultivated by the power-building needed to advance in our oligarchical party system. There is plenty of evidence in recent years that Britain has become more obviously corrupt: the Owen Paterson and Michelle Mone scandals, among many other Covid self-enrichments through the ‘VIP lane’; Johnson’s various murkily funded jollies and emoluments; peerages for donors, as well as socialite tabloid owners; public appointments for cronies, especially at the BBC; the log-rolling Towns Fund; Robert Jenrick’s attempted favours for developer mates at Westferry. The list could multiply and multiply and multiply.

Searle’s account was intended as a corrective to the Whiggish belief that after reform of the ‘old corruption’ – the sale and purchase of office and influence, and private diversion of public money – British politics evolved to a peak of probity and public-mindedness. Yet the era of the plutocrats was rife with corruption. Britain never managed anything as spectacular as the Panama Affair in France or Tammany Hall in the US, but there was the Marconi scandal (an insider trading affair which included partisan exculpation by Liberal politicians), not to mention the period’s flagrant traffic in titles, culminating in Lloyd George’s 1922 honours scandal.

The UK’s electoral system today is commendably uncorrupt: although it is stupidly and unfairly proportioned, it has long been free of the stain of the old corruption. It relies on the ordinary virtue of thousands of local volunteers who conduct each poll with a commitment to democracy and fair dealing only rarely matched by the people they elect.

If the gambling scandal has any effect on the election, it will only be at the margins of the Tory vote, which has already disintegrated. Exposure of the wider implications seems unlikely. Journalists searching for historical analogies for the present moment often reach for Labour’s 1945 landslide, but perhaps the gradually decaying system of the early 20th century, increasingly beholden to the power of new plutocrats, rotted through with individually minor corruptions, increasingly detached from the nation it governed, seemingly on the verge of final collapse, might be more persuasive.


  • 30 June 2024 at 9:22pm
    Jonathan Ferris says:
    Reading Dominic Lawson in the ST today balances this “Labour favourable” piece. He sets out facts about senior members of the Labour Party being friendly with important people in the gambling industry.
    PS I’ve placed my postal vote for Labour.