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15 July 2016

What the bookies know about horse-racing – and politics

My week, including the social mix at Newmarket and how to handle the worst name-droppers.

By William Keegan

The bookmakers have been much in the news recently, not least because a lot of my fellow members of the Remain camp relied too much on what they thought the bookies were telling them when the opinion polls were far from reassuring.

The key point so many commentators missed was that, although far the greater weight of money went on Remain, far more individual bets were being placed on Brexit. Until Andrea Leadsom’s sudden withdrawal, the same pattern seemed to be emerging in the Conservative leadership race. But we have now been spared.

How did I know this – and start considering Irish citizenship several months ago? Well, I have loved horse racing from a very early age and am in close touch with the bookies. Throughout the referendum campaign I received regular bulletins from William Hill about what lay beneath the odds that, superficially, suggested Remain was a racing certainty. At one stage, if one had placed £100 on Remain one might have won only £15 (the odds varied a lot).

After a searing experience at Ascot one year, I decided never to back an odds-on favourite again. In which context I should like to make a confession. Many decades ago, in this very periodical, I wrote an article arguing that the bookies should be nationalised. Subsequent reflection has convinced me that this was a mistake. Their presence adds greatly to the enjoyment of a trip to the racecourse. Indeed, as I witnessed yet again at Newmarket’s July meeting, there is something special about the social mix, and general air of contentment – win or lose – that one experiences at the races.


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After the fall

In common with most readers, I imagine, I have found it difficult to get away from the horrors of the referendum result, tending to alternate between depression and black humour. As a young journalist I followed closely the abortive efforts of Harold Macmillan and then Harold Wilson to overcome President de Gaulle’s intransigent “Non”, and Edward Heath’s final triumph in the early 1970s thanks partly to his good relationship with President Pompidou. It beggars belief that, after decades of trying to enter what is now the European Union, we are likely to throw it all away.

Or are we? Almost certainly Mrs Leadsom, the last Brexiteer left standing after the shoot-out at Gove-Johnson Corral, would have done so. There is more hope with Mrs May, although it was a terrible thing for her to frighten all those immigrants who are so vital to our economy by raising the possibility of using them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations with the EU.

Like most users of the National Health Service, I am well aware of how dependent our hospitals are on immigrants. When I slipped in the mud on Hampstead Heath last November, injuring a tendon to the point where I could not move, I was helped by an eastern European dog walker, who called an ambulance and remained by my side until I was rescued. One of my daughters-in-law, a GP, has since told me not to walk so fast: the faster one walks, the more likely one is to trip, especially on all those uneven pavements. Talking of which, I notice that, when people are young, they “fall over” but, after a certain age, they “have a fall”.


Marx out of ten

The lies told about extra spending on the NHS by the Brexiteers were truly shocking. Also distressing is the way that many disillusioned northerners allowed themselves to be convinced that so much of the social damage wreaked by George Osborne’s austerity programme was the fault of the EU or immigrants. My father, a strong trade unionist, used to lament the amount of time he had to spend persuading “working people” where their true interests lay.

The Brexit result brings back to mind a spoof leader column written by some members of the Financial Times when I worked there. It went something like this: “While in many ways the FT was against the Marxist-Leninist revolution that has just taken place in this country, now that it has occurred, the important thing is to ensure that it works properly.”


Famous friends

One trap newspaper diarists can fall into is that of name-dropping. The most celebrated example was the late Norman St John Stevas, who – so the tale goes – was accused of name-dropping and replied: “That’s funny. The Queen Mother was accusing me of that only the other day.”

A story that may be new to readers concerns Conor Cruise O’Brien, when he was editor-in-chief of the Observer, and William Clark, who resigned as Anthony Eden’s press secretary over Suez, and subsequently had a high-powered public relations role at the World Bank. Clark came to lunch and could hardly stop talking about what Robert McNamara (his boss), Henry Kissinger and Pierre Trudeau had recently told him.

Suddenly he became aware that his host was not paying attention, and was staring fixedly under the table.

“What’s wrong?” he asked Conor. “Ah,” came the reply in that wonderful Irish brogue. “I am worried about the strength of the floor for the weight of the names that are being dropped upon it.”


Total recall

Ministerial memoirs are published frequently, but the candid recollections of distinguished civil servants are a rarity. One forthcoming volume to cherish is that by Sir Brian Unwin, who was at the centre of things when Mrs Thatcher “got our money back” – the famous British rebate from the Brussels budget negotiated in 1984 at Fontainebleau – as well as during the Westland scandal in 1986 and the infamous “arms to Iraq” affair, which led to the Scott inquiry. Sir Brian is a passionate “European” and his own man, and I doubt whether he will allow Whitehall to bowdlerise his revelations of what really went on.

William Keegan is a former economics editor of the Observer

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM