Regular readers of these pages will already be familiar with the work of Scott Benton MP, the anti-abortion, pro-death penalty Conservative representing Blackpool South.
He was the minister that fought tooth and nail to welcome ‘super casinos’ to his town, while enjoying a dizzying array of VIP tickets and perks for Euro 2022, Royal Ascot and Wimbledon paid for by various gambling operators.
He wasn’t the only MP of any party to benefit in such a way, of course, but this time the gambling sector’s own Icarus has flown too close to the sun – a sting operation by The Times has Benton facing suspension from the House of Commons….and even a possible by-election in his local constituency.
When Benton met with undercover reporters, he perhaps had nothing but innocence on his mind.
But by the end of the meeting, he’d agreed to break lobbying laws in return for cash from a fake gambling sector representative.
Benton agreed that a sum of between £2,000 and £4,000 per month would be more-than-fair compensation for his ‘advisory’ work with the fake company set up by The Times, which was formally registered and boasted headquarters in the UK and India. In return, he could outperform a PR firm by promising ‘probably the direct ear of a minister who is actually going to make these decisions.’
And in a video released by The Times, Benton also promises to hand the fake company a copy of the government’s White Paper on proposed legislative changes in the gambling sector 48 hours before its official publication.
Even for a government as allegedly corrupt as this one, that was a step too far and Benton has had the whip taken from him – that means he continues in his work as an MP, but will be forced to sit as an independent minister while an investigation is carried out.
The Committee on Standards has already met to discuss the matter, recommending the 35-day suspension from the House of Commons. They reported, in their opinion, that Benton had committed an ‘extremely serious breach’ of the rules, intimating by his actions that the MP ‘was corrupt and ‘for sale’, and that so were many other Members of the House.’ The committee’s Daniel Greenberg also revealed that Benton had essentially admitted to breaking lobbying rules in the past, too.
“He communicated a toxic message about standards in parliament. We condemn Mr Benton for his comments, which unjustifiably tarnish the reputation of all MPs,” the committee’s verdict read.
If an investigation leads Commons members into ratifying the penalty, it could yet trigger a by-election in Benton’s Blackpool South seat that he won back in 2019. Any parliamentary suspension of ten days or longer is subject to a recall petition – and if 10% or more of the constituents in Blackpool South sign it, an effective vote of no confidence is passed and the people would be packed off to the polls.
It’s Not What You Know….
The revelation forms part of a wider Times probe into the manner in which gambling firms are thought to be paying ministers to lobby on their behalf for more relaxed legislation – although not quite ‘cash for questions’, betting sector companies are thought to be using inducements like free tickets and hospitality as a cover up.
Others have been offered paid ‘consultation’ work, which could be considered code for lobbying incentivisation….allegedly, of course. Being paid by third parties in return for trying to influence political discourse is strictly forbidden
Benton has said that he did not take up the fake job offer as he was concerned that it would breach parliamentary rules. He has stated that he will appeal against his suspension from the House of Commons.
“Representing my constituents is a profound honour in my life and it is a responsibility I hold in the highest regard,” he said. “The meeting was a lapse in judgment and I deeply regret my comments.”
If a by-election is called, it could be catastrophic for Rishi Sunak – particularly in the wake of the hammerings he has taken in other local ballots in 2023. Blackpool South is far from a safe seat for the Conservatives, so there’s a chain of events which means that this column may sadly be saying goodbye to Benton as a serving MP in the months ahead.
Still, that will free up more time for him to attend major sporting events in the UK and elsewhere….paid for out of his own pocket, of course.