Political sketch: "Flashman" Dave asserts himself

But attacking a pensioner during election week is always bad form.

With United playing City in the most important derby game since the beginning of time you would have thought that MPs had better things to do before the match than bother the nation with politics.

Indeed, that was David Cameron’s gamble as he tried yet again to re-launch his political career after yet another of the worst weeks since his last worst week — the week before last.

But that was before Speaker Bercow intervened to give the Prime Minister the biggest dose of double dromedary since predecessor Gordon took the hump and headed for the Scottish hills two years ago.

His new beginning hadn’t exactly got off to a brilliant start anyway, what with the latest opinion polls showing the Tories double-digits behind Labour in the polls, Dave’s personal rating down again and local elections results due on Thursday.

But at least he thought he’d parked his present headache, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s love-in with the Murdoch family, with the Leveson inquiry, thereby giving him a few weeks grace.

But that was before Speaker John agreed to a Labour bid to haul the PM back into the Commons for one final roasting before they all disappeared until the Queen's Speech.

The Speaker's relations with Dave are said to be on the cold side of frozen stiff — but that was tropically warm compared to the atmosphere in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister turned up for his telling-off.

You could tell there would be no severe bashing today as the PM sat down with the embattled Jeremy firmly stapled to his side. And the danger of doing Commons business after lunch became immediately obvious as fans on both sides of the terraces let loose with the insults even before a fact was mentioned.

Ed Miliband, egged on by the Labour version of the Kop, hardly had to poke his stick into the PM before he was off and shouting foul and much worse. Ed demanded an immediate inquiry into relations between the Culture Secretary and the Murdochs in a sure-footed performance of someone who knows the high moral ground when he is standing on it. And Dave could only bluster in reply having pointedly reminded the Speaker that he’d said all this at Prime Ministers Questions last week.

Jeremy, breathing in and out like a goldfish with asthma, almost nodded his head off as his leader pronounced him not guilty — for the moment — and Chancellor George pressed even closer to him to prevent any attempt to flee the scene.

Notably absent from the PM’s other side was his Deputy Nick Clegg who, aware that his own deputy Simon Hughes was to back calls for an early inquiry, had chosen to go AWOL as indeed had the rest of the side of the coalition he provides.

As Dave’s temper grew shorter and shorter, the volume on his side grew louder apace, persuading Speaker Bercow to pour further oil on the flames by calling for calm.

It was to no avail and the PM’s well-known "Flashman" tendency finally asserted itself when Dennis Skinner made one of his traditionally blunt contributions, only to be told to take retirement and get his pension. Attacking pensioners in an election week is always bad form and even Dave’s side blanched a bit.

It was left finally to the wonderfully irrelevant Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory MP who looks and sounds exactly like his name, to say that only  “a socialist yahoo” would rush to make a decision. Ed could only smile at the compliment.

A member of the protest group Avaaz holds puppets depicting David Cameron (L) and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war