Political betting and the odds obsession

Why newspapers and punters will be unhappy with David Cameron's unwillingness to pull the trigger.

Who's in? Who's out? Who's up? Who's down? What are the odds? Will he go first? Will she go first? While illegal in most other fields, politics is one of the few ways you can legally make a bet with insider knowledge.

Now I am as guilty as the next person for being an avid fan and user of the wise words and odds provided by Mike Smithson at PoliticalBetting.com, in part because his analysis is rarely wrong.

Some journalists use odds as a way of backing up a story now. If it is 2/1 that Ed Miliband will no longer be leader by the next election it is sometimes written with the same authority as an opinion poll. But anyone can sway odds if they work hard enough at it, or have enough money to throw at it. If Guido Fawkes announces that he is putting a pony on Chris Huhne to be out of the Cabinet by the end of May (a bet he clearly lost) it suggests he is attaching some credence to his claims. People are more likely to believe him.

In the days when no-one paid any attention to the Liberal Democrats, the potential to make money on bets was significant, I know of a rather lovely patio that was built courtesy of the proceeds of a by-election bet. Charles Kennedy placed a bet once on some glorious odds for the European Parliament Elections in 1994 because no-one believed the Liberal Democrats would get any seats at all. The main betting companies are much smarter now and work on their Liberal Democrat intelligence.

But something has changed which drives a stake through the heart of political betting - and it is driven by those at the centre of government.

From Caroline Spellman on forests, Kenneth Clarke on rape sentencing to Andrew Lansley on NHS reforms, politicians are no longer instantly losing their jobs. Instead they remain there to put things right. Even Vince Cable remained in post after the sting by the Telegraph (for which they were recently wrapped over the knuckles with a feather duster by the Press Complaints Commission).

I think this is a good thing. In real life people don't get fired for a first mistake, unless it is gross misconduct. If they are well managed, they get feedback and asked to put it right.

Reshuffles are a nightmare - ask Gisela Stuart who got forgotten in one of Tony Blair's reshuffles, or read the descriptions in the Blair or Jonathan Powell memoirs. The potential for chaos is legendary. Once, the then Chief Whip Archy Kirkwood and I went grovelling to the press gallery in Parliament to collect a press release about a reshuffle in which we had completely forgotten about someone senior.

I also think people should believe David Cameron when he says no Cabinet reshuffles this year. Can you imagine the resulting coverage? Lib Dem disappointment versus Tory back bench fury - the headlines would be entirely predictable.

A wise Tory backbencher said to me last week, "Why did Margaret Thatcher lose her leadership? Because if you put a tick by the names of every MP she had reshuffled out of government and of those who felt they had been overlooked that added up to the vote against her in the first round."

So save your money. Don't waste it on the flurry over the next few days about the departure of Lansley or the return of Laws. Beware the stories of reshuffles throughout the summer. Always ask yourself whether this was simply a slow news day?

Read Cameron's lips: no reshuffles this year. If only there were decent odds on that...

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.