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...

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.