PMQs review: Cameron's Europe headache swells

In the Commons at least, Miliband has much to gain by banging on about Europe.

"We've been here 33 minutes," noted David Cameron at one point in today's PMQs. One senses that the Prime Minister doesn't enjoy it when his weekly inquisition overruns. Europe has become a headache for him, like all his recent predecessors, and Ed Miliband has every intention of exploiting this fact.

The Labour leader asked Cameron an admirably succinct question: what powers will he seek to repatriate at this week's EU summit? After all, six weeks ago, at the height of the EU rebellion, Cameron told his backbenchers that a treaty renegotiation would give him a chance to do just that. But the PM, waffling on about "safeguards" and "the national interest", offered nothing resembling an answer. As Miliband concluded: "the more he talked, the more confusing his position was."

He went on: "why does the Prime Minister think it's in the national interest to tell his backbenchers one thing ... and to tell his European partners another?" Cameron responded, as he always does, by going on the attack. It was Labour that "surrendered" powers to Brussels and that would take us into the euro (had he not heard Ed Balls tell the House that Britain would not join the single currency in his "lifetime"?). It is indicative of Cameron's woes that he now prefers to attack than to defend. The simple fact of the coalition means that he is in a lose-lose position on Europe. He can't say which powers he wants back because to do so would enrage either the Lib Dems or the Tories (or both). Miliband's quip that Cameron promised his backbenchers a "hand-bagging" but was now just offering "hand-wringing" was devastating because it was true. No fewer than eight Tory MPs asked Cameron about Europe and not one of them received a satisfactory answer.

But the Labour leader was notably less effective when he attacked the autumn statement for taking three times as much from the poorest third as from the richest third. He criticised Cameron for delaying a new tax on private jets (which would raise just £5m a year) but Cameron shot back: "he had 13 years to tax private jets and now some former leaders are jetting around in them." In apparent desperation, Ed Balls thrust an IFS decile graph in Cameron's direction. But while the facts are on Labour's side, the politics aren't (yet). For now, in the Commons at least, Miliband has much to gain by banging on about Europe.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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