Keir Starmer blasts Sunak’s leadership over ‘failure to grasp the nettle’ on election betting scandal

Exclusive: Starmer has made the election about character and leadership with a full-blown attack on the PM’s inability to deal with the gambling scandal

Geordie Greig,David Maddox,Kate Devlin
Wednesday 26 June 2024 13:18 BST
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Keir Starmer says that if those involved in the betting row had been Labour candidates ‘their feet wouldn’t have touched the ground’
Keir Starmer says that if those involved in the betting row had been Labour candidates ‘their feet wouldn’t have touched the ground’ (Getty)

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Sir Keir Starmer has taken aim at Rishi Sunak’s leadership ability over the election date betting scandal, accusing the prime minister of “failing to grasp the nettle” and take action quickly enough.

The Labour leader’s taunts came on the day that Mr Sunak finally agreed to suspend the candidates, two weeks after the allegations first emerged. The scandal continued to deepen on Tuesday when Scotland Yard confirmed that five more police officers were alleged to have placed bets on the timing of the general election. The Met said it had been passed information on the allegations by the Gambling Commission.

Speaking to The Independent, Sir Keir insisted that, had Labour candidates been involved in allegedly trying to use insider information to make bets, they “would have been straight out of the door” and their “feet wouldn’t have touched the ground”.

Just a few hours after the interview, the Labour leader made good on his words, suspending Central Suffolk and North Ipswich candidate Kevin Craig after being told he was also being investigated by the Gambling Commission. Sir Keir also handed back Mr Craig’s £100,000 donation to the party.

The Labour leader made it clear that the final week of the election campaign would be about character and leadership, and who is best placed to make the tough decisions in government.

Sir Keir’s attack on the prime minister had echoes of the 2010 campaign, when Gordon Brown was described as “frit” by David Cameron as he headed towards defeat.

Starmer, pictured discussing knife crime with actor Idris Elba on Tuesday, has been critical of the prime minister’s handling of the betting scandal
Starmer, pictured discussing knife crime with actor Idris Elba on Tuesday, has been critical of the prime minister’s handling of the betting scandal (PA Wire)

Craig Williams, the candidate for Montgomeryshire, was Mr Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary, and Laura Saunders, the candidate for Bristol North West, has worked for the party since 2015. Her husband, Tony Lee, has taken leave of absence from his role as the Tory director of campaigns, after he too came under investigation by the Gambling Commission.

Sir Keir spoke of his anger at the scandal that has tainted British politics over the last two weeks, and questioned the length of time it took for Mr Sunak to take action.

“It’s a failure to grasp the nettle,” he said. “It’s I don't know how many days after the first admission – I think it’s 13 days, and certainly a good week and a bit since [it first broke]. If they had been my candidates, they’d have been straight out of the door and their feet wouldn’t have touched the floor, but to wait a week, to make excuses like that, is inexcusable.”

The Labour leader himself has been accused of being slow to take action against candidates in the past, including during the Rochdale by-election in April, when Labour’s candidate Azhar Ali was suspended for repeating conspiracy theories about Israel that claimed the country had orchestrated the Hamas terrorist attacks on 7 October.

Mr Ali’s words were first put to Labour on a Saturday and broke in the evening. After Labour attempted to defend the decision not to suspend their candidate on the Sunday political shows, further accusations were put to the party on the Monday, and he was then suspended.

Sir Keir said this showed that he and his party had acted quickly in comparison to Mr Sunak and the Tories.

The Conservatives have withdrawn their support for Craig Williams, the former candidate for Montgomeryshire
The Conservatives have withdrawn their support for Craig Williams, the former candidate for Montgomeryshire (PA Media)

“I think the issue blew up on the Sunday, and [Mr Ali] was gone by the Monday,” he said. “That was a by-election, where we were drawing the only candidate in the by-election, where basically we had to concede the by-election.”

Sir Keir’s comments came as Mr Williams, who has admitted placing a bet on the date of the election, defended himself after his suspension. He said he had “committed an error of judgement, not an offence” and added that he intended to clear his name.

But public anger over the issue was highlighted by an opinion poll that showed increasing support for the idea that those who gambled on the election date should be barred from standing as candidates.

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the UK public said that candidates who placed bets on the date of the general election should not be allowed to stand, in research by Savanta conducted from 21 to 24 June, before the Conservative Party announced that it had withdrawn its support.

Savanta’s research has underlined the challenges the prime minister faces, with over half (54 per cent) of Conservative voters saying that the candidates shouldn’t have been allowed to stand.

It came as Scottish Secretary Alister Jack insisted that a claim he made, that he had won £2,000 betting on a July election, had been a joke.

He said in a statement: “Following reports today I want to be absolutely clear I have not breached any gambling rules. I placed two unsuccessful bets on the date of the general election and one successful one.

“I put two bets on in March of £5 each for an election to be held in May and June respectively. In April, I put £20 at 5 to 1 on an election being held between July and September. I had no knowledge of the date of the election until the day it was called. As I have said previously, I placed no bets in May and am not under investigation by the Gambling Commission.”

Shortly after the prime minister called the election, he told the BBC he had made £2,100 after betting on June and July election dates.

Rishi Sunak’s leadership is again under question
Rishi Sunak’s leadership is again under question (EPA)

Mr Sunak had withstood days of mounting calls to suspend those caught up in the row, with Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker the latest senior Tory to call for action.

In a bid to head off criticism, the prime minister announced on Monday that the Conservatives were conducting their own inquiry into the row. But a day later, the party said that “as a result of ongoing internal enquiries” it could no longer support either candidate.

Mr Williams – who, as Mr Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary, was one of the prime minister’s closest aides – appeared to admit having placed a bet on the election date just days before the Tory leader announced it, saying he had made a “huge error of judgement”.

Despite being ditched by their party, both Mr Williams, who is standing in Montgomeryshire and Glyndwr, and Ms Saunders, the former candidate for Bristol North West, will still appear on ballot papers, as the deadline to change these has passed.

Mr Baker piled pressure on Mr Sunak on Monday when he told ITV: “I would call them up and ask them, ‘Did you do it?’ And if they did it, then they are suspended.

“But the prime minister would have to answer why he hasn’t done it. I haven’t got inside information on why the prime minister hasn’t done it.”

The Northern Ireland minister joined senior Tories including Tobias Ellwood, who also called for the two candidates to be suspended.

After the announcement, Conservative former cabinet minister David Frost tweeted: “We get there in the end. But why did it take so long to come to a decision that seemed so necessary right from the start?”

Others said to be involved in the Gambling Commission inquiry include the party’s chief data officer Nick Mason, who has taken a leave of absence from CCHQ.

A close protection officer for the prime minister has also been suspended by the Metropolitan Police and is being investigated.

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