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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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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