General Election 2024: Rishi Sunak isn't the first to have his election campaign dominated by sleaze

Dr Matthew Francis explores election sleaze scandals of the past, and the public's lack of trust in British politicians.

Rishi Sunak side profile looking down.

The withdrawal of support for two parliamentary candidates under investigation by the Gambling Commission for placing allegedly suspicious bets is merely the latest blow to the Conservative election campaign. After his rain-sodden election announcement and his own D-Day gaffe, Sunak must wonder what else could go wrong. 

Of course, Sunak is far from the first Conservative leader to find his party beset by allegations of ‘sleaze’. In 1997, John Major entered the general election campaign on the back of five years in which a range of financial and sexual misconduct allegations were levelled against many of his parliamentary colleagues. The most prominent ‘cash for questions’ scandal, which prompted the BBC journalist Martin Bell to stand in – and win – one of the safest Tory seats in the country as an anti-corruption candidate. Sunak might, at least, count himself lucky that these allegations have broken too late for that to happen. 

From a short-term perspective, these stories will further damage the Conservative campaign. Quite apart from the fact that they follow hot on the heels of a series of (what might generously be described as) campaign mishaps, they may also jog the public memory of other recent Tory scandals, such as ‘partygate’ or the suspension of multiple MPs over sexual misconduct and lobbying allegations. For many undecided voters, this may be enough to dissuade them from returning to the Conservative fold. 

However, in the longer-term, the allegations both speak to and feed into a wider crisis that faces all mainstream political parties. According to data from the British Social Attitudes survey, public trust in politicians has fallen steadily since the beginning of the 1980s, and particularly sharply since the expenses scandal of 2009. The most recent survey found that nearly 58% of voters ‘almost never’ trust politicians to tell the truth, whatever their party. That distrust of the political mainstream is one of the factors that has fuelled the rise of populist parties like Reform. 

For many voters, the betting allegations may be further evidence that they cannot trust any politician – and that is not just a problem for the Conservatives.

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