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What the election date betting scandal really tells us about the state of British politics

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Many stories of political wrongdoing involve an element of plain stupidity – at least the ones we find out about. In fact, many of the most famous scandals in modern history have involved moments where one thinks, “Crikey, these guys aren’t half as smart as they think they are.”

Partygate is a pretty good example. Having illegal gatherings in government premises is wrong – taking photos of said parties is asking to be caught. And the 2009 expenses scandal had its fair share of elements which raised an eyebrow – floating ornamental duck house anyone?

There are any number of problems with betting on an election date when you obviously have some kind of proximity to the person who makes the decision about when that election is called – especially when the decision appears to come out of nowhere to practically everyone else. But, without wanting to sound too much like Michael Gove, it’s hard to properly unpick everything whilst an investigation is going on.

This legal issue makes it quite hard to analyse any political scandal until well after the fact. So far we know that two Conservative election candidates (who both remain in the race) are under investigation after bets placed on when a general election would be called were flagged as suspicious with the Gambling Commission.

Craig Williams, Rishi Sunak’s former aide and a candidate for Montgomeryshire and Glyndwr said: “I put a flutter on the general election some weeks ago. This has resulted in some routine inquiries and I confirm I will fully cooperate with these”.

Another challenge when considering stories of this kind is trying to keep a straight face. Often, they are quite funny. Terrible, and representative of the worst kind of entitlement – corruption is, after all, the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. But these cases are also often undeniably funny.

The thought of Helen McNamara, the government’s former ethics chief, lugging a karaoke machine into the Cabinet Office for an illegal party is quite funny.

Inadvertently claiming pornography as an expense is funny.

Reports that Williams only staked £100 on what are pretty generous odds is quite funny.

Protestors floated a mocked up ornamental duck house past the houses of parliament in 2009 in protest over the expenses scandal which saw one MP claim £1,645 for just such an item.
EPA/Andy Rain

At the same time, the reason why none of this is funny is that each case threatens to reinforce our worst suspicions about politicians – that they are all in it for themselves and, more worryingly, that they are all as bad as each other. The actions of one, or a group, infect the body politic. A plague on both your houses.

There’s a reason that the Ipsos veracity index – which measures whether the British public trust certain professions to tell the truth – finds that politicians are always towards the bottom. But there’s also a reason, perhaps, that politicians reached their lowest ever score when figures were released in late 2023.

They’re not ‘all as bad as each other’

Most politicians aren’t the irredeemable liars we make them out to be. They aren’t necessarily venal, self-interested and corrupt. In fact, most are quite the opposite. The vast majority of the hundreds of people who sit in parliament and work in government are motivated by a strong (if differing) sense of duty, fairness, and the idea of politics as a public service.

In a 2012 article, political scientist Matthew Flinders warns against the wholesale embrace of a “bad faith model of politics”, in which the starting assumption is that everyone is in it for themselves. This feeds a narrative that democratic institutions, and democracy itself, is failing. Flinders notes that “democracy is more fragile” than people think and that demonising politicians as a whole because of the scandals of a few, “risks unnecessarily eviscerating public confidence in democratic politics”.

And, OK, claiming pornography on expenses is funny, but Jacqui Smith, the former home secretary who made the claim (potentially for pornography watched by someone else in the first place) has also spoken at length about the personal damage these revelations caused. She has also highlighted the relatively simple mistake – claiming for a cable TV bundle without looking at who’s been watching what – that led to the end of her career.

And the more I look at it, the more the election date gambling debacle feels like a story as much about simply bad politics and sloppy thinking than a broken political class.

In fact, the entire Conservative election campaign can be tracked by its various examples of sloppiness. Every “marmalade dropper” moment so far – the kind of thing you can’t quite believe you are reading – falls into this category. From announcing the election in the pouring rain to ditching D-Day celebrations to running an attack ad warning voters not to “bet on Labour” while your own side is being probed for effectively shorting the election on the gambling market, we’ve seen unforced error after unforced error.

If only the prime minister had access to a bespoke indoor briefing room from where he could make important, dry announcements.
Alamy

In his magisterial tome, How Tory Governments Fall, historian Anthony Seldon identifies nine factors that have been evident in the failure of various Conservative governments to retain power since 1783. The one that has always stuck with me, and feels most pertinent today, is “the strength of feeling of ‘time for a change’”.

Sometimes, especially if you’ve been at something for a long time, you run out of steam. And the Conservatives have been in power for 14 years at this point.

Political scientist Tim Bale, in his equally magisterial tome, The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron – and in a chapter titled aptly for this discussion “losing the plot” – talks of the institutional issues longstanding governments have. Of a failure to renew the project, of serving up more of the (unpopular) same. Of plain and simple inertia.

This scandal is less about politics, and a corrupt political class, and more about something much more relatable – the people in charge are just drained. The men and women who have been running the UK for over a decade have become like a football team that has achieved a relative period of success, but that is stuck and out of ideas.

The election date gambling story is the epitome of this. This is a party simply tired of governing. Of course, the increasing worry for the Conservatives, is that the public are just as – if not more – tired of them governing, too.


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