Rishi Sunak under new pressure over gambling scandal as top Tory Tobias Ellwood calls for suspensions

Rishi Sunak is under pressure as the Gambling Commission probes alleged bets placed by Tory insiders ahead of his announcement of a July 4 election (REUTERS)
Rishi Sunak is under pressure as the Gambling Commission probes alleged bets placed by Tory insiders ahead of his announcement of a July 4 election (REUTERS)

Senior Conservative Tobias Ellwood on Monday broke ranks with Rishi Sunak over a gambling scandal rocking the party, urging the PM to suspend candidates suspected of betting on the election timing.

The former defence minister said he had "no doubt" that the controversy will cost his party seats at next week’s election, as an investigation by the Gambling Commission reportedly widens to include many more Tory insiders than the four identified so far.

The Prime Minister ruled out himself and close family members from being subjects of the probe.

“(The Gambling Commission) don’t talk about the individuals that they are investigating,” he told reporters while campaigning in Edinburgh.

“What I can tell you is I am not aware of any other candidate that they are looking at.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris insisted on LBC that the four were “innocent until proven guilty” as he backed the PM’s refusal to suspend them from the party until the investigation reports back, and accused Labour of "trying to influence" the Gambling Commission’s inquiry.

While Mr Sunak is so far standing by his suspected members - two would-be MPs and two senior figures in party HQ - the Met have arrested and suspended an officer in the PM’s personal security unit.

Mr Ellwood, who unlike Mr Heaton-Harris is standing again for the Commons, indicated that the Conservatives need to get a grip with the party already facing a mountain to climb on July 4.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the outgoing MP for Bournemouth East said "in what world they thought this was acceptable is beyond belief", acknowledging that the affair was a "deeply unhelpful, self-inflicted distraction".

Asked if Mr Sunak should withdraw formal party backing from the two candidates, Craig Williams and Laura Saunders, Mr Ellwood said: "Given the scale of this as we see now, and the potential for this story to continue to eclipse, to overshadow the election, I would now agree.

"I'm not sure anyone including the prime minister could have predicted the number of people involved when this story first broke. The public want to see clear robust action now."

The Gambling Commission is reportedly looking at “hundreds” of suspicious bets placed on May 21, the day before the PM surprised the nation by calling a summer election, to see if they profited from any inside information.

Mr Williams, an outgoing MP who was a parliamentary aide to Mr Sunak, has admitted to a “grave error of judgment” in betting on the timing. Ms Saunders has pledged to cooperate with the investigation.

Ms Saunders’ husband Tony Lee, the Conservatives’ director of campaigns, is also believed to be under investigation as is the party’s data chief, Nick Mason. Both he and Mr Lee have taken a leave of absence.

Labour frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth highlighted that Mr Williams retains Tory backing to stand in Montgomeryshire and Glyndwr despite admitting to a “flutter” on the timing.

“It’s absolutely astounding that a string of ministers can’t answer basic questions about the Tories’ betting scandal,” Mr Ashworth said.

“Voters will be asking themselves why on earth Rishi Sunak has refused to take action – despite his own candidate and close aide apologising for his role in this farce.”

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper demanded an immediate inquiry before polling day by Sir Laurie Magnus, the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, to determine “whether any ministers were implicated in the scandal”.

“The Conservative betting scandal shows once again it's one rule for them and another for the rest of us,” she said.

“People are fed up with endless sleaze and scandal under the Conservative Party, from Partygate to this latest gambling fiasco.”

Asked how damaging it was to the Conservative Party, Mr Heaton-Harris said “it’s not great”.

But he opposed a call by Mr Ellwood for a change in the law to ban political bets by any serving politician or party professional.

The Northern Ireland Secretary told Times Radio that he himself had placed wagers in the past on “individual seats that are what you would be calling too close to call”.