Tory candidate in gambling probe married to party campaign chief

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A Conservative parliamentary candidate under investigation over a bet placed on the timing of the UK election is married to the party’s director of campaigning, according to Tory officials.

Laura Saunders, a Conservative staffer who is standing for election in Bristol North West, is being investigated by the Gambling Commission over an election-related bet, people familiar with the matter said.

Separately, two party officials said that Saunders is the wife of Tony Lee, the Conservative director of campaigning.

Saunders is the latest figure to face scrutiny over bets on the timing of the election. The gambling regulator launched a probe into Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s closest parliamentary aide last week and a police officer from the premier’s protection detail was arrested earlier this week.

The Conservatives said: “We have been contacted by the Gambling Commission about a small number of individuals. As the Gambling Commission is an independent body, it wouldn’t be proper to comment further, until any process is concluded.”

Saunders and Lee did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The revelations threaten to further damage the Tory party’s already struggling re-election effort. The Conservatives are trailing Labour heavily in the polls, several of which have predicted a catastrophic defeat for Sunak and his party at the July 4 poll. The Tory campaign has been hit by Sunak’s own blunders, including returning early from D-Day commemorations.

Saunders has worked for the party since 2015, most recently helping to co-ordinate its international work liaising with other centre-right parties.

Lee previously described himself online as a political campaigner “with over 20 years experience in running elections” and said he had led the successful campaign to re-elect former West Midlands mayor Andy Street in 2021. Lee’s LinkedIn page was not active on Thursday.

He was appointed director of campaigning by deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden, who highlighted Lee’s work as the “mastermind” behind Street’s campaign at the party’s Spring Forum in March 2022.

The Gambling Commission said it was “investigating the possibility of offences concerning the date of the election”. It added: “This is an ongoing investigation, and the Commission cannot provide any further details at this time.”

Craig Williams, who as parliamentary private secretary to Sunak was one of his most trusted aides, is also under investigation after he placed a £100 bet on a July election just days before his boss announced the date of the vote.

Sunak said he was “very disappointed” in Williams, who has admitted a “huge error of judgment” after he “placed a flutter” on the election date.

Williams has declined to say whether he placed the bet on the basis of any inside information and Sunak refused to confirm if Williams had known about the date of the poll, insisting it was not appropriate to comment while an independent investigation was under way.

On Monday, London’s Metropolitan Police arrested an officer in Sunak’s personal security detail over “alleged bets” placed on the timing of the election.

The Met confirmed that a member of its Royalty and Specialist Protection command had been held over “alleged bets”, without identifying whom he guarded. A person familiar with the situation confirmed he had been part of Sunak’s protection detail.

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