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23 January 2019

William Keegan’s Diary: Bets on Brexit, cheated by Laurel and Hardy – and the loss of the subordinate clause

I confess to having placed money on Leave as a kind of pathetic insurance policy. 

By William Keegan

Last time I wrote this diary, I pointed out that a major indicator of the way things were going before the referendum of June 2016 was this: although the big money was being placed on Remain, making it look like an odds-on certainty, far more individual bets were being placed on Leave.

I am a betting man and confess to having placed money on Leave as a kind of pathetic insurance policy. It was a bet I should have been happy to lose. There was a lot of betting after Theresa May lost the parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, with the odds about a postponement of activating Article 50 immediately shortening from 4-6 to 1-7. For non-racing readers, odds of 4-6 mean that if you put down £6 you only win £4 should your horse win.

This means that even before May’s “historic” defeat, it was thought by those placing bets that a postponement was just about likely. The move to 1-7 signified this was now thought to be a “racing certainty”. On this occasion, unlike with the referendum, the distribution of bets told the same story: 84 per cent of what Lawrence Lyons of BoyleSports describes as “meaningful” bets on that day were in favour of an extension.

I think it is worth pointing out what such odds mean because much of the media coverage is misleading. We are told that the odds “on”, say, the egregious Boris Johnson to be the next Tory leader are shortening, when what is really meant is that the odds against him are shortening. There is absolutely no evidence that Johnson, God help us, is the odds-on favourite.

Relaxing with Keir

I have every sympathy with people who say they are fed up to the teeth with Brexit, but less sympathy when they add “Why don’t they just get on with it?” The evidence is mounting that all forms of Brexit would be damaging, with some being far more damaging than others. It is not for nothing that my regular column on economic policy in the Observer has been preoccupied for two and a half years now with attacking Brexit.  It is easily the biggest crisis I have had to cover in my career. What is especially annoying is that it is self-inflicted; unlike, say, the oil shocks of the 1980s, which severely aggravated Britain’s inflation problem.

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I know people who simply turn off the radio or TV when the word Brexit comes up. I recall an occasion last year when Keir Starmer was in conversation with the journalist Steve Richards and one questioner said: “Sir Keir, like you, most people here are obsessed by Brexit. What do you do to relax?” Starmer answered that he played football at weekends with his two sons. At that point my good friend Richards spotted me in the audience and asked what I did to relax. I replied that I read novels.

“What are you reading now?”

I am sure many readers will have had that blank moment when one can’t quite remember. Luckily, on this occasion, I found myself replying immediately. Therapy, I said, and almost brought the house down.

Builders’ book picks

Therapy is by the great David Lodge. We had the builders in at the time and the books were in chaos. I had picked it up at random, having bought it many years ago but never got round to reading it. I can recommend it to a younger generation that might not have heard of Lodge, along with such other Lodge novels as Small World and Nice Work.

I shall recommend too another author to lighten the Brexit gloom, an American humorist called Peter De Vries. I first came across him when I read an interview many years ago with Kingsley Amis, and the interviewer asked, “Mr Amis: you make many people laugh: who makes you laugh ?”

The answer was Peter De Vries. I particularly recommend Reuben, Reuben. However, in all fairness I ought to add the rider that my wife cannot stand him.

Another author to have resurfaced during our building works, carried out by a wonderful team of Albanian builders under the aegis of the redoubtable Nino (of Islington), is Richmal Crompton. I was brought up on her Just William books and can report that they stand the test of time. She wrote beautiful English, in the days when everyone knew what a subordinate clause was. Alas, the subordinate clause is a lost cause – or clause. It is common practice among people who ought to know better to say things like: “He is one of those people who believes that…” When I was at school that was a punishable offence. The correct form is, “He is one of those people who BELIEVE that…”

Fifteen minutes of fame

I thoroughly enjoyed Stan & Ollie, the film of Laurel and Hardy’s 1952-53 tour of Britain  and Ireland. My brother Victor and I actually saw them on stage at Wimbledon Theatre during that tour. I confess I cannot remember much about their act. One thing I do recall is that it was not very long, and we felt slightly cheated. They were top of the bill but there were many acts leading up to them. We had been warned. There is always some know-all around, and the local SW20 know-all had scoffed: “You think they are going to be on all the time, don’t you?”

Bras in the road

Last week I went to the funeral of one of my oldest friends, someone not unknown to these pages over the years, the economist Robert Neild, a pillar of my old Cambridge college, Trinity. Robert was 94 and “ready to go”. I lunched with him and another Cambridge friend, Adrian Bridgewater, a few weeks before he died. We attempted to drive to his funeral at the Cambridge City Crematorium, but were impeded by an unconscionable number of roadworks, and diversions caused by a broken-down lorry containing women’s lingerie, which was on fire. This unfortunate event gave BBC News the opportunity to pinpoint the latest manifestation of the bra-burning phenomenon. However, we had no trouble getting to Trinity for the celebration of Robert’s long life. l

“Nine Crises: Fifty Years of Covering the British Economy from Devaluation to Brexit” is published by Biteback

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This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?