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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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