Scott Benton: Blackpool South MP quits after lobbying sting with Rishi Sunak facing another by-election

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Disgraced ex-Tory MP Scott Benton has quit sparking another by-election headache for Rishi Sunak.

Rishi Sunak is facing another by-election in Blackpool South after disgraced former Tory MP Scott Benton quit.

Benton, who was elected as a Conservative but now sits as an independent, was caught in a sting offering to lobby for gambling companies. Benton was busted by The Times offering to lobby ministers, table parliamentary questions on behalf of gambling investors and get them access to the legislation before it was made public.

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After MPs upheld his 35-day suspension from the House of Commons, a recall petition in Blackpool South was triggered, meaning if 10% of the electorate were signatories a by-election would be called. Instead, despite professing his innocence, Benton quit before the petition was complete.

Benton appealed the suspension saying the investigation by the Commissioner for Standards and the Committee's process was flawed and the sanction was disproportionate. This however was dismissed. If MPs approve the suspension, as is customary, then it's highly likely Sunak will be facing another by-election which Labour is odds on to win.

What did Scott Benton do?

Journalists at The Times, posing on behalf of a fake investment fund in the industry, filmed the MP as part of an undercover sting operation. In the footage, Benton can reportedly be seen offering to leak a confidential policy document containing market sensitive information, in exchange for a payment of £2,000 to £4,000 per month.

The former Conservative MP also offered to lobby ministers on behalf of the gambling industry, including, the Commissioner's report states, “the direct ear of a minister who is actually going to make these decisions”. He told reporters: "The beauty of politicians, if you like, are we vote in the House of Commons two or three times a day, and […] you will literally stand at the beginning at the entrance to the voting lobby. And if you wait there for five minutes, the minister has to pass you. And then you’ve got 10 minutes while you walk around to the next vote to have his ear."

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Scott Benton has had the whip suspended for appearing to offer to lobby for the gambling industry. Credit: Mark Hall/ParliamentScott Benton has had the whip suspended for appearing to offer to lobby for the gambling industry. Credit: Mark Hall/Parliament
Scott Benton has had the whip suspended for appearing to offer to lobby for the gambling industry. Credit: Mark Hall/Parliament | Mark Hall/Parliament

Benton said he could “call in favours” from other MPs and get “easy access” to when they are queueing to vote in Parliament. During the meeting, Benton suggested he could, if hired, provide “real-time information”, as well as sitting down with them to go through a formal response to a policy consultation “line by line”.

He also said he would be able to "guarantee" a copy of the white paper of the policy two days before it was published, in a move that would give the fake company access to market-sensitive information ahead of publication. Benton added that he could table Parliamentary questions on behalf of the company.

Under parliamentary rules, MPs are forbidden from providing advice to firms on how to influence the House - or for advocating for a particular matter in exchange for payment of any kind. Benton had the Tory whip suspended after the allegations came to light.

At the time, the MP insisted that “at no point during the meeting did he agree to undertake activity that would be in breach of the rules”. 

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What did the Standards Committee say?

Following the sting by the Times, Benton referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Daniel Greenberg. Following an investigation, he found that Benton had breached the MPs' Code of Conduct and then passed on that information to the Standards Committee - made up of cross-bench MPs.

The Standards Committee are damning about Benton, saying "in our view ... it was an extremely serious breach". The report stated: "The message he gave to his interlocutors at the 7 March meeting was that he was corrupt and 'for sale', and that so were many other Members of the House. He communicated a toxic message about standards in Parliament.

"We condemn Mr Benton for his comments which unjustifiably tarnish the reputation of all MPs. This makes it all the more important that Parliament deals decisively with cases like the present one where a Member shows themselves to be unworthy of the position they hold in public life."

The MPs added: "His comments gave a false impression of the morality of MPs in a way which, if the public were to accept them as accurate, would be corrosive to respect for Parliament and undermine the foundations of our democracy." When handing down the recommended 35-day suspension, the committee said "a serious sanction is appropriate".

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In written evidence to the committee, Benton argued that “no parliamentary rules were broken during my one hour meeting with a fictitious company” and he said that “it is my view that I complied with the letter and the spirit of the rules”.

What happened with Benton's appeal?

Benton claimed the suspension was procedurally flawed, alleging there had been a leak by the committee, and said that the 35 days was disproportionate. But in a report published on 20 February, an independent panel upheld the Standards Committee’s original decision, saying there had been “no procedural flaw” in the process.

The panel also described Benton’s arguments against the recommended suspension as “misconceived or erroneous”, finding the sanction was “neither unreasonable nor disproportionate”.

Will there be a by-election?

On 25 March, Benton resigned triggering a by-election in Blackpool South. This will give Rishi Sunak a further headache, after loses in Mid Bedfordshire, Wellingborough and Kingswood. Blackpool South is a seat Labour will be targeting, having held it from 1997 to 2019 before Benton's victory.

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Benton has a majority of just 3,690, with Labour having recently overturned majorities of more than 20,000. He recently gave his support for Donald Trump on X (Twitter), describing his potential election as President later this year "the greatest come back of all time".

The gambling lobby

Lobbyists, bookmakers and betting firms put vast resources into a wide-ranging campaign aimed at influencing the long-awaited gambling white paper - which was published earlier this year. MPs including prominent ministers and shadow frontbenchers received tickets and lavish hospitality to the Brits, the Euro 2020 finals, Royal Ascot, Cheltenham, Wimbledon, Twickenham and almost every other major sporting event, plus an Ed Sheeran concert, with a total value of almost £200,000.

Gambling companies and the main industry lobbying organisation secured more meetings with government than the official regulatory body in the run up to the publication of the long-awaited review - sitting down with ministers almost once a month over three years. The industry recruited former MPs and people with political connections, and enlisted the support of influential Westminster consultant lobbyists, aimed at fostering links with both major parties.

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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