Sunak tries to move on from betting row with plea not to ‘sleepwalk to July 4’

Rishi Sunak has faced further questions on gambling by Conservative candidates, as he sought to move on from the scandal, telling voters not to “sleepwalk to July 4”.

Speaking at the launch of the Tories’ Welsh manifesto, the Prime Minister acknowledged voters’ “frustrations”, but suggested the General Election is too important to be used to send the party a message.

He said: “I warn you, don’t fall into Labour’s trap, don’t sleepwalk to July 4.

“I know you want to send us a message, but this is not a by-election.”

The questions he faced after his speech continued to focus on allegations that a string of people with links to the Conservative Party or Number 10 bet on the timing of the contest before he announced it.

Mr Sunak refused to be drawn on whether he is aware of other Conservative candidates or officials who placed bets on the date of the election, saying there are “multiple investigations” under way that are “independent” and “confidential”.

He added: “What I can tell you is, as I said, if anyone is found to have broken the rules, they should not only face the full consequences of the law, but I will ensure that they are booted out of the Conservative Party too.”

Craig Williams, the party’s candidate in Montgomeryshire and Glyndwr and Mr Sunak’s parliamentary aide, admitted to having “a flutter” on the date of the election after it was disclosed he was under investigation by the Gambling Commission.

A line graph showing the Conservatives continue to trail Labour significantly
(PA Graphics)

It has since been reported that another candidate, Laura Saunders, and her husband, Tory director of campaigning Tony Lee, were also facing a Gambling Commission investigation, while a member of Mr Sunak’s close protection team has been arrested and removed from operational duties over similar allegations.

The matter was referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) which said, at this stage, the Metropolitan Police’s Directorate of Professional Standards should investigate.

Ms Saunders, the Conservative candidate for Bristol North West, said she “will be co-operating with the Gambling Commission” investigation, while Mr Lee took a leave of absence from his role with the party on Wednesday, just 15 days before the polls open.

Labour has called for both Mr Williams and Ms Saunders to be suspended as candidates.

Speaking to journalists on Friday, Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Sunak of a “total lack of leadership” over his decision not to suspend either candidate.

He said: “Of course he should suspend these candidates. If they were my candidates, they’d be gone by now, out of the door. He needs to take tough action. He’s not even saying today whether there are more involved.”

But Mr Sunak declined to say whether any more Conservative figures had been implicated in the scandal.

He told reporters: “The responsibility for investigating this is with the law enforcement agencies, including the Gambling Commission and the police.”

He also repeated his line that he will not “compromise the integrity” of the probes, when pressed repeatedly on why he is not suspending the candidates embroiled in the allegations.

Rishi Sunak shakes hands with a man during the Welsh Conservatives manifesto launch
The gambling scandal overshadowed the launch of the Conservatives’ Welsh manifesto (Aaron Chown/PA)

The Gambling Commission confirmed its probe is into potential criminal offences, with a spokesperson saying: “Currently, the commission is investigating the possibility of offences concerning the date of the election.”

The watchdog noted that if someone uses confidential information in order to gain an unfair advantage when betting, this may constitute an offence of cheating under Section 42 of the Gambling Act, which is a criminal offence.

Concerns that political insiders may have profited from knowledge of the election date overshadowed Friday’s launch of the Conservative manifesto for Wales, at which Mr Sunak repeated accusations that Labour would “change the rules so it’s much harder to ever get them out”.

He said: “They want to give 16-year-olds a vote not because on principle they think that they are adults, but because they think they’ll vote for them.

“Once they have got power they will change every rule to make sure that they keep it.”

A Labour spokesman said: “This reeks of desperation and is a lie. Labour will allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote and will not extend voting rights beyond that.”

The Conservatives have previously claimed Labour would also extend the vote to prisoners and EU citizens, something the opposition has expressly ruled out.