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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.