Ed Balls and George Osborne on The Andrew Marr Show this morning. Photograph: BBC.
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Balls ambushes Osborne with handshake on head-to-head TV debate

The Chancellor later tried to wriggle out of a one-to-one debate, saying that Danny Alexander should also be invited. 

Ahead of this week's Budget, Ed Balls (who I profile in the current NS) and George Osborne made their usual appearances on the Andrew Marr show. The best moment, as ever, came after their separate interviews when they appeared together on the studio sofa.

After Marr raised the subject of the TV debates, Balls ambushed Osborne by inviting him to shake hands on a head-to-head contest between them before the election. "Come on, George, let's go for it," he said. The Chancellor acceded, telling Balls, "I'm happy to meet you in a debate", and shaking his hand. But no sooner had he done so than he added: "Well, we're going to see who else wants to be invited ... I've got a very effective Chief Secretary [Danny Alexander] who I would think would also want to be part of that debate", prompting Balls to reply: "No, no, one-to-one, we just shook on it". It was a brilliant manoeuvre by Balls, although the image of him shaking hands with Osborne will doubtless by exploited by the anti-austerity Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

In their earlier interviews, both men sought to deploy their standard attack lines but were distracted by the question of how they would behave in a hung parliament. Pressed repeatedly on whether Labour would do a deal with the SNP, Balls refused to rule one out, telling Marr: "You know, Andrew, you've been covering politics for 30 years, parties, large parties, at this stage say 'we're fighting for a majority'". When asked whether the Tories could work with Ukip (Nigel Farage has offered to support them in return for an EU referendum before Christmas), Osborne similarly said: "We are going to get ... we are fighting for a majority. We only need 23 more seats to get that majority".

But both men's answers betrayed their lack of confidence in winning outright. Balls's suggested that he was obliged to maintain the pretence that Labour is fighting for a majority, even if one is unlikely, while Osborne began by saying that the Tories would win a majority before reverting to "we are fighting" (he knows that the former is extremely unlikely). The reason neither of them is prepared to rule out working with the smaller parties is precisely because they may need to do so. 

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