UK election-betting scandal hits even deeper than it appears

June 25, 2024 9:02 PM
  • Jake Pollard, CDC Gaming Reports
June 25, 2024 9:02 PM
  • Jake Pollard, CDC Gaming Reports

In a nod to the late great Frank Zappa, I recently wrote that there seemed to be “more trouble every day” for the U.S. online sports betting industry, with stories of dubious business practices connected to VIPs, fraudulent and debt-laden betting habits, and overbearing levels of advertising.

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But when compared to the UK, and more specifically to some of its politicians and their relationship with betting, at least wagering on election outcomes and other political permutations is banned in the U.S.

So Americans are spared the ignominy, insult, or straight-up outrageousness of reading about politicians, police, and/or assorted close-protection officers undergoing investigations for suspicious bets on when the UK elections would be held. The accusatory tone is deliberate and in this case, there is no need to provide any semblance of balance or quote people from different sides of the argument.

That’s because the facts are clear and, let’s be blunt, the UK Tory party has plenty of form when it comes to breaking rules, such as holding raucous pandemic-restriction-breaking parties in Downing Street as the rest of the country was hunkering down during the dark days of COVID.

Indeed, Betfair (part of the Flutter Entertainment group) data shows that wagers on the date of the next nationwide election suddenly shot up in the weeks prior to its announcement. Speaking of the Flutter group, an amusing aside has seen its PR teams contacting journalists to ask them to avoid referring to the scandal as “Fluttergate.”

First of many
This betting story first came out two weeks ago, when it was learned that Craig Williams, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s personal private secretary (a.k.a. his bag carrier), bet £100 at 5/1 on the election being held on 4 July, three days before Sunak announced it to the British public.

The election date might seem highly agreeable to U.S. readers, but it also might be a nod (okay, a foghorn) to former green-card-holder Sunak’s preference for all things West Coast (he studied and met his wife-to-be at Stanford University) and its tech scene. In any case, what was already a bad look for the Conservatives soon took a turn for the worse.

News emerged shortly after that Laura Saunders, another Tory candidate, was also being investigated and that her husband, who happened to be the Conservative Party’s director of campaigning, had taken a leave of absence over the matter. Just to be clear, that’s a campaign director stepping down during a general election … err … campaign.

A week is a long time in politics and mantra-like, the Tory party told anyone who would listen that the UK Gambling Commission was investigating the matter and it had to wait for those findings to be published before taking any action. This is despite Williams being door-stepped and, while telling the intrepid reporter he could not comment, did just that and admitted to making a “foolish error of judgment.” Talk about fessin’ up, eh?

News then emerged that one of Sunak’s bodyguards had been suspended for the same offense and this week, another five officers (!) have been placed “under investigation over suspect bets on election timing.

As with most political milieux, gossip and speculation love an information vacuum and there have been rumors that the scandal might include members of the Cabinet (as was, before the election was called). In other words, high-ranking politicians who headed up ministries might also be involved.

All the while, just as the Tories said they would wait for the Gambling Commission to issue its findings, they announced the suspensions of Williams and Saunders as candidates in the last few days. Still, that hasn’t stopped Williams from announcing that he intended to stand for re-election in his constituency. Such a stand-up chap.

Cut-through 
For those not familiar with recent UK politics, the reason this latest scandal is so damning and cuts through with the public is because the past 14 years of Tory rule have been, to use the scientific term, a complete s***show.

The “highlight” of the period was, of course, the country’s vote for Brexit in 2016. It has made things immeasurably worse and was backed by outrageous lies and misinformation (that might sound familiar to U.S. readers), while 2019’s general election saw a raft of useless and disingenuous Tory politicians (good job this an opinion column, Ed) win long-held Labour seats and in the process give the then PM Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority.

What followed Johnson’s win has to go down as the worst period of government of the past 40 years. He achieved nothing politically, but also enabled and, when it suited him, condoned or tried to defend the worst kind of dishonest behavior by some of his colleagues. The pandemic claimed more than 200,000 lives, one of the highest death tolls in western Europe, and many Tories were given preferential treatment and awarded multi-million-pound government contracts for protective equipment that turned out to be useless. They still got to keep the money, though.

So while political betting tends to be low key and small fry for bookmakers, the thought of politicians and other staff close to the levers of power taking advantage of privileged information seems deeply unfair to most people. It’s a form of insider trading that hits far beyond the confines of the business world, because it impacts most voters, even those who don’t follow politics closely.

The optics look terrible and politicians, as opposed to highly paid athletes who tend to be young, wealthy, and not always as smart as they could be, have real power in every sense of the word. In short, more is expected of them when it comes to probity, integrity, and accountability. After all, many of them say they possess those qualities in abundance. And while this political betting scandal was only connected to the election date, the thought that another scenario might have an impact on the outcome of an actual seat is never far.

Beyond the rank stupidity of those involved in this latest gambling mishap, especially as they must have known about politically exposed persons and that bookmakers are required to flag up any such activity, another irony is that cases of insider trading in corporate environments probably generate much higher returns and are potentially more common occurrences.

Still, in light of this case, Americans should be glad political betting is forbidden in the U.S. Then again, maybe regulators should regulate it. It might shine a light on some of the most stupid and venal wagering ever witnessed.

Further watching: If you have 15 minutes to spare, John Oliver has the perfect summary of UK politics over the past 14 years.