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Gamble-gate has been blown out of all proportion

The election-betting scandal is not the great criminal enterprise it’s being made out to be.

Christopher Snowdon

Topics Politics

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The British public rallying around the bookmaking industry has been one of the unexpected highlights of this General Election campaign. Political candidates and insiders have seemingly been using privileged information to make themselves a few quid at the bookies’ expense. Those poor bookies. It is, apparently, such a scandal that it has been in the news for a full fortnight at the expense of whatever Rishi Sunak and his election-winning wizards in Downing Street had on ‘the grid’.

While some of the behaviour is undeniably tawdry, the legal situation is less clear-cut. The 2005 Gambling Act (Section 42) makes it illegal to ‘cheat’ at gambling. In the absence of a full definition of what cheating is, we must rely on case law. But most cases of cheating are resolved by voiding bets rather than instigating criminal proceedings. It is, however, not inherently illegal to bet on a result that is known. If you wanted to make a one per cent return on your money, you could still go on Betfair Exchange and bet on the General Election being held in July until a couple of days ago. If anyone is daft enough to bet against a July election, you could do so again tomorrow.

The situation is different when you can affect the result. You are allowed to bet on your own racehorse to win, but not to lose, because everyone expects you to try to win. Matches that are deliberately thrown and goals that are deliberately conceded amount to a fraud against betters, fans and spectators alike. Since match-fixing undermines sport, governing bodies take it seriously and it is they, rather than the police or the Gambling Commission, who generally take action, as when eight Chinese snooker players were suspended and two were banned for life in 2023.

At a push, one could argue that Kevin Craig, the now suspended Labour candidate in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, was in the latter category when he bet that he would not overturn a 24,000 Tory majority in a constituency that has never been anything but Conservative. He was, undeniably, in a position to affect the result. He could have taken his trousers down at the hustings and called his potential constituents a bunch of inbred yokels, for example. But since he had already donated £100,000 to the Labour Party and stood to gain money, power and, to a lesser extent, prestige by winning the seat, it seems unlikely that any judge would consider this a plausible motive.

Downing Street spads placing bets on the date of the election is more of a case of insider trading. It is not inherently illegal to bet on something about which you have privileged or inside information. Professional gamblers make a living by knowing more about the love lives of goalkeepers and the fitness of greyhounds than the bookies. In a (now deleted) 2018 document titled ‘Misuse of inside information’, the Gambling Commission gave examples of inside information being unfairly exploited, such as knowing that a certain celebrity will appear in a TV series or that a certain actor will win an award. This is what the Commission describes as ‘restricted information’ and it is similar to someone who works with the prime minister knowing the date of the election. In most such cases, says the Commission, ‘the appropriate form of sanction would be through the sports body or through the employer, combined with the betting operator refusing the bet under contractual terms’. The Commission might consider ‘taking action to void [the] bet’, but it would not consider a criminal investigation.

Using restricted information is not, in other words, a very big deal normally. The employer, Rishi Sunak, has indeed taken action by suspending the candidates under investigation, and those involved are unlikely to complain if the bookies void the bets. Political betting is a tiny niche of the gambling industry that acts more or less as a publicity-generating loss leader. Bookies frequently offer punters odds on events that they know some people have prior knowledge of and limit stakes accordingly. No one is forcing them to take the bets. Sunak’s buddies sticking a few quid on the date of election is more pathetic than anything else. It looks grubby, but it does not justify two weeks of breathless headlines.

A more interesting question is who is pushing this story? As experienced bookmaker Geoff Banks says, the Gambling Commission has ‘studiously maintained for the past two decades that it neither discusses the details of investigations that it undertakes nor does it discuss the fact that an investigation may or may not be in play’. And yet, through a series of leaks to the press, we know that there is not only a series of investigations underway, but also the names of many of the people under investigation. A pattern is becoming familiar. A journalist is tipped off about a gambling investigation into a political figure. The journalist writes a story in which he says that he ‘understands’ that the person is being investigated. The person is contacted by the journalist, admits that an investigation is underway, and is then suspended.

Who is behind all this? The Met Police are involved in some of these cases, but they have firmly denied leaking any of the names. If it isn’t them, someone at the Gambling Commission would seem to be the most likely suspect. The Commission has been tight-lipped in its few official pronouncements, confirming only that certain investigations are underway, but somebody somewhere has been keeping the media up to speed with its every move.

The irony is that whoever is responsible for the drip-drip-drip of leaks, which almost exclusively damage the Conservative Party, is using inside information to affect the result of an event. Now that really is something worth investigating.

Christopher Snowdon is director of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also the co-host of Last Ordersspiked’s nanny-state podcast.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics

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