Have election betting revelations gone from genuine scandal to political circus?

<span>Craig Williams is under investigation by the Gambling Commission over a £100 bet on the date of the general election.</span><span>Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images</span>
Craig Williams is under investigation by the Gambling Commission over a £100 bet on the date of the general election.Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Until the past few weeks, online casinos and bookmakers have made handy villains for an under-pressure government.

Ministers could legitimately claim to be cleaning up Labour’s mess with reforms that partially roll back the permissive regulatory regime ushered in under Tony Blair.

Now, thanks to the political betting scandal, it is the gambling sector’s turn to ride its high horse. Many people in the industry, which has manifold reputation problems of its own, are privately fuming at being tarred by association with the Conservative party.

“Nobody is pleased about being involved in a political corruption scandal,” said one boardroom veteran. “It emboldens people to be critical and more encouraging of regulation full stop.”

The glare of the spotlight may be trained on gambling but, so far, there has been more heat than light.

The initial revelation, that Craig Williams bet on the date of the general election days before it was announced to the public, undoubtedly merits rigorous investigation, as do claims that others followed suit.

Section 42 of the Gambling Act outlines the criminal offence of cheating. It is widely drawn, extending to anything that may interfere with the gambling process, which could include knowing an outcome in advance thanks to privileged access.

The Gambling Commission has the power to prosecute suspected offenders, although the only time it has ever done so was a little more clearcut, relating to a greyhound trainer who drugged dogs to fix races.

But much of the saga has been a political circus rather than a matter of law or regulatory reality. It is not a criminal offence for an MP to bet on themselves winning or losing a seat, nor has it proved particularly controversial in the past.

In 1994, a young Charles Kennedy, who would go on to be leader of the Liberal Democrats , bet £50 at 50-1 that the party would win just two seats in the European elections. The political stakes may have been rather lower than in a general election but contemporary news reports carried no outrage.

To this day, in the often macho and hedonistic world of politics, it is an open secret that MPs and officials bet on politics. This niche market – worth tens of millions compared with the billions wagers on football and horse racing bring – interests few outside Westminster.

That’s not to say that party leaders shouldn’t consider banning their MPs from the practice. They ought, however, to be clear-eyed about why that might be desirable and where the opportunity for impropriety really lies.

A politician betting on themselves to win their seat cannot realistically affect the outcome. Though it may not always be obvious, they are already trying, and often failing, to charm the electorate.

Betting on a loss is a little different.

Football fans deploy this “emotional hedge” all the time, betting against their team so that there is a silver lining if they lose. Notable practitioners include Peter Cook, the late comedian and Tottenham Hotspur fan.

Why shouldn’t MPs do the same?

First, it is arguably crass in the extreme to treat an election that will affect the lives of millions with such flippancy. What is a constituent who cannot afford a home, or must wait months for a medical consultation, to think of a Conservative MP securing a free dinner as a reward for failure?

There is an issue of perception too. Realistically, betting on a political loss is vanishingly unlikely to be a secret money-spinning plot. A footballer can deliberately miss an open goal, or pick up a yellow card. Short of openly insulting the electorate, there’s not much an MP can do without suffering more dire consequences.

Nor is there much incentive. Being an MP brings with it all kinds of financial incentives, both in office and after, far outweighing the relatively paltry winnings that bookmakers typically allow.

But one reason that footballers aren’t allowed to bet on matches anywhere in the world is that even the slightest whiff of corruption undermines the perceived sporting integrity of the contest, which is key to its continued appeal. There’s a compelling case that the same logic should apply to the process that decides how the nation is governed. If the probity of the Carabao Cup is sacred, why not the general election?

Just as the integrity of football is a matter for the Football Association, these are matters for party leaders and, potentially, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to rule on.

That’s why the Gambling Commission and Met police made clear on Thursday that their focus is only on election date bets, not flutters on still unknown constituency outcomes.

Equally important, if not more so, is the cosy relationship between politicians and the gambling industry, a nexus that threatens to undermine efforts to protect people from addiction, financial ruin and even suicide.

In recent years, MPs have scooped up thousands of pounds worth of hospitality – and even second job salaries – courtesy of the betting industry, more than they ever could from wagers. There are question marks, too, over how and why Tory MPs have been able to bet thousands on a constituency result, when bookies restrict ordinary punters to much smaller stakes.

But while the political betting scandal has only shortened the odds on the Tories being swept away, the Labour party’s ties to the gambling industry run just as deep, perhaps deeper.

This political betting scandal may not be the last.