Betting on the next Foreign Secretary

July 22nd, 2019

Last weekend I did a piece on who will be the next Chancellor and my central premise was that Boris Johnson would leave Jeremy Hunt at King Charles Street lest he adds another malcontent on the backbenches so dabbling in this market didn’t really interest me as I might end up tying up my money for a long time. The events in the Strait of Hormuz probably ensures Boris Johnson decides to keep Hunt there for continuity reasons alone.

However the more I thought about it I convinced myself there’s value in backing Emily Thornberry at 16/1, there’s a couple of plausible routes to her becoming the next Foreign Secretary.

  1. There’s a general election soon to solve the Brexit impasse in Parliament or if sustained no deal causes the government to collapse and a Labour led government takes power (either via a majority or some form of coalition/supply and confidence arrangement.)
  2. Boris Johnson’s government loses a vote of no confidence and during the fourteen day window of the fixed term parliament act Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister either for the long term or a caretaker Prime Minister until an autumn general election (perhaps with the only proviso he has to extend Article 50 lest we fall out of the EU whilst in the middle of a general election.) Thus Corbyn needs to appoint ministers and that’s how Emily Thornberry becomes the next Foreign Secretary.

So for some smallish stakes I’m backing Emily Thornberry in this market. It does say a lot about the anticipated direction of a Johnson ministry that Priti Patel, a woman who had to resign in disgrace for running a private foreign policy, is the third favourite in this market.



At this critical time reflections on “Cultivating Democracy”

July 21st, 2019

Occasionally I have planted a gorgeous looking plant; it has flowered briefly then died.  On digging it up I find the dreaded wine weevil or roots which have made no attempt to spread into the soil and find nutrition.  It is a reminder that nourishing the hidden roots is by far a gardener’s most important task.  A plant not strong and well anchored will be blown away by the winds, destroyed by frost or succumb to malicious bugs and parasites.

As with plants, so with democracy.  The assumption these days is that its most important aspect is the ability to vote.  Elections are the visible, exuberant expression of a democracy, its flowers if you will.  These days scarcely a day goes by without some politician referring to the 2016 referendum as the biggest democratic exercise in Britain’s history, as if this were an unprecedented event, of such preciousness that nothing else should come close.  Of course voting is essential or, rather, obtaining people’s consent to their government is.  But elections, on their own, are not sufficient to make a democracy.  Iran has elections.  But even its most fervent admirer would be hard pressed to call it that.  For democracy to flourish, something more is needed: what might be termed a democratic cast of mind and approach and culture informing how the various institutions in a state and everyone from voters to political parties and politicians behave.

What does this mean?

  • An understanding that state and government are not the same.  State institutions are there to serve but are independent and impartial and not party political.  The civil service, for instance, enacts government policy but also exists to warn, improve and advise.  Blind obedience is not necessary for good policy-making and implementation; indeed, it may hinder it.
  • Winning does not mean winner takes all.  The state is not there to be plundered, stuffed with your placemen and used for your own ends.
  • Understanding that the ends do not justify the means.  How one exercises power is, in a democracy, as important as what one is trying to achieve.  A party which comes to power is – for a time – custodian of the powers and institutions of the state and has a duty to pass these on in a workable state for the next government.  The rules of the game, the constitution, the conventions, the protocols, the implicit understandings of the limits of power may be of little interest to most voters, may indeed be seen as old-fashioned, out-dated, incomprehensible folderols but they exist in all democracies and are there to ensure that power is obtained and exercised fairly and in a way which does not place such excessive strains on the system that it breaks (or comes close to doing so).
  • Realising that your time in power will be not be for ever.  One day you will be in opposition and will need the tools which can be so irritating to governments facing challenge.  If you accrete more and more power to yourself, your opponents can use it against you when are in opposition.  It is, therefore, wise to ask yourself whether you would be happy to have the worst possible opponent in government with the same powers (that you, of course, are only ever going to use wisely) at their disposal.  Perhaps those in power could remind themselves of Lord Acton’s aperçu about power and corruption.
  • Accepting the concept and reality of opposition, that the very fact of opposition or a different point of view is legitimate and that this forces you to raise your game, to justify what you are doing, to think again, to take account of different viewpoints, to modify, to realise that you may not have all the answers, to understand that the tension inherent in having to reach agreement with those who disagree can often lead to a better, more long-lasting outcome.
  • Independent institutions who have their own role to play in ensuring good governance, proper scrutiny and a properly democratic culture: the press, the judiciary, all sorts of bodies from Burke’s little platoons to bodies set up by government to scrutinise and challenge and review.
  • Leaders who understand that they are and should be open to challenge and scrutiny and MPs and others who are unafraid to challenge and scrutinise.
  • A realisation that while it is parties which win elections, once in government your primary duty is to the country.  The interests of the party are separate from the interests of the country, however much parties like to pretend otherwise.  Of course, governments make choices about who their policies will benefit and about what is electorally popular.  But only a government in the grip of hubris should claim that it represents the British people as a whole or that the winning side in a vote is somehow the Will of the People as if anyone who opposes or disagrees is somehow unBritish and to be ignored.  A difference of opinion does not make one a traitor or even misguided.  There is more than one way of analysing a problem, thinking about an issue, devising a solution.

And as in government, so for political parties.  Parties have always tended to be broad groupings with a range of opinions.  A narrow purist approach to what it means to be Labour or Conservative or Liberal or Liberal Democrat has never really taken hold.  In part, this has been because the electoral system has forced internal coalitions on parties while, at least until recently, making actual coalition governments less likely than in other European countries.  (One of today’s ironies is that just as parties become ever narrower and purist the more likely it is that they will not gain a majority but be forced into coalition with others.)  Whatever the reasons, this has reinforced an understanding that a democratic culture within parties – as well as within the country – encompasses negotiation, compromise, accommodation.   Compromise and barter are the essence of democratic politics.  They are at the heart of how differing interests and viewpoints are managed, of how trust and tolerance and respect for others are lived rather than merely asserted in speeches.

As Burke put it, it is: “a very great mistake to imagine that mankind follows up practically any speculative principle, either of government or of freedom, as far as it will go in actual argument or logical illation.”  Politicians would do well to remember this.

Idealistic: yes.  Naive: almost certainly.  In practice, politicians have not always paid attention to these principles or not as much as they ought.  But better to aim for ideals and fall short than ignore them altogether and undermine them.  And the latter seems to be happening now.  The travails of the Labour Party over anti-semitism and of the Tories over Brexit show us politicians with little implicit understanding of what a democratic culture really means:-

And so miserably on.  Implementing a referendum result should not mean taking a sledgehammer to the very democracy which made it possible.  Wanting a radical set of policies to help the less well off need not mean behaving like a nasty spiteful sect lashing out at anyone outside the charmed circle.  Perhaps the Brexit referendum caused this.  Maybe these tendencies were always there and were exacerbated by it.  It scarcely matters.  What matters now is that politicians try to remember that their biggest duty is to nurture our democracy, to make sure it lasts and flourishes and is handed on to future generations in good order.  For all the talk of Votes and Mandates, their actions are those of destructive parasites.  If not checked, they will end up killing what they claim to love.





Diss-May. The manifest inadequacy of the outgoing Prime Minister

July 20th, 2019

I come to bury Theresa May. She leaves the highest political office in the land with no achievements to her name. The country is more divided than when she took office. Its economy is faltering. She has found no resolution to Brexit, the task for which she was appointed Prime Minister. She has completely failed.

Mrs May might reasonably argue that the task was immense. So it was. She has made it worse.

The tragedy is that she understood part, but not all, of the task at hand. She saw correctly that the referendum result needed to be honoured in the spirit as well as the letter. To that end, she painstakingly identified the parameters of the result: the need to leave the single market; and the need to have the power to control immigration.

What she did not see, however, was the need to forge a consensus. The nation had just been split almost exactly in two by the question. It was divided and passions ran deep. As urgent a priority as finding the right path for Brexit was the need to get the country pulling in the same direction again. That required an attempt to get views from across the political spectrum.

This might have been attempted in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most obvious would have been a Royal Commission, with terms of reference set to ensure that the Commission report would produce a recommended approach consistent with the referendum result. (This would have required politicians across the political spectrum either to dip their hands in the blood or to consign themselves to carping from the sidelines.) That would have taken time. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the country needed some time out, not least to determine how to plan how to approach discussions with the EU. The EU would have benefited from a time-out too.

Would this have worked? Honestly, I’m doubtful. The deceitful xenophobia of the Leave campaign had left a large chunk of the Remain vote regarding the result as lacking moral legitimacy.  That would have been very hard to overcome. Just as hard to overcome would have been the empty nihilism of most Leavers who knew that they hated the EU viscerally but had no concept of where they might compromise in order to secure any positive aims, because they didn’t really have any. But it would have been worth a try.

Instead, Theresa May sought to settle Brexit singlehandedly. At a time when the country needed to be inclusive, she sought to impose. She did not have the strength of will or the breadth of vision.

Mrs May compounded the mistake with her approach to language. When she condemned those who saw themselves as citizens of the world as “citizens of nowhere”, many doubting Remain voters mentally checked out from a project that was evidently going to be designed to exclude them.

She did nothing to stop talk of saboteurs, traitors, enemies of the people and quislings among Leavers. This talk simultaneously pushed Remain voters to see this as a project that could never be for them and pulled Leavers further to the extremes.

A well-timed intervention from the top could have reasserted a civic unity. But she simply did not see the need and the drift to two tribes only accelerated.

Most seriously, when Theresa May announced that no deal was better than a bad deal, she legitimised the idea of no deal Brexit (an idea that she evidently thought was terrible because she did nothing to prepare for it) and she bolstered the expectations of hardline Leavers that they had nothing to compromise on.

This made it easy, as the outlines of the deal unfurled, for her hardline Leave opponents to label it as a sell-out. Since she had done her level best to exclude anyone who had voted Remain from having any sense of shared purpose in the process, she got no support there.  

As you sow, so shall you reap. Having effectively told Leavers that they need not compromise and having told Remainers that the terms were going to be dictated to them, Theresa May found that a compromise that required selling had no buyers.  

So by December 2018, Theresa May had clearly failed in her appointed task of obtaining a Brexit deal that the country could live with.  She then made her most unforgivable mistake. Having clearly failed, she did not change course and she did not resign. She squatted in Downing Street, acting as an active impediment to finding other resolutions. She consciously ran the country out of options in an attempt to reverse her failure.

Her deal, however, was dead in December. It is now July. Those seven months have driven the country still further to extremes. The talk is of no deal Brexit (perhaps secured by suspending Parliament) or of revoking the referendum decision (perhaps without a fresh vote). No one talks of compromise. This is her legacy.

Theresa May is not a bad woman. She evidently has a strong sense of public duty.  She was, however, wholly inadequate to the task she had been given. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So it will be with Theresa May.

Alastair Meeks


Follow the formbook when betting on Boris’s successor and choose an old Etonian

July 20th, 2019


Five of the past 7 male Tory PMs were educated there

Within minutes of Boris being declared leader on Tuesday morning expect new betting markets on who will succeed him as CON leader, who’ll be his successor and how long will survive at Number 10.

When considering a factor to remember is that the form book shows us that Tories liked to be led by someone who was educated at Eton.

Going back to 1955 of the seven men who have become Conservative prime ministers five have been old Etonians.

That’s some record. Of these we had Etonians’ Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Alec Douglas Home, then some time later David Cameron and of course Boris Johnson. The only other male Tory Prime Ministers in the intervening period were Edward Heath and John Major both of them were educated at state schools.

William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith did not, of course, ever make it to Number 10. Even if their parents could have afforded it Margaret Thatcher and TMay would have been barred by their gender from getting into Eton.

So in choosing someone to bet on for a possible Boris successor this might be the moment for Rory Stewart who is an old Etonian and certainly has very different qualities than Johnson. He established himself as the surprise of the MP part of last month’s voting getting much further than was predicted.

I’ll be looking out for the early odds and if good enough my money will go on Rory.

Mike Smithson


The prorogue debate is a red herring: the question is No Deal or No Confidence

July 20th, 2019

Parliament won’t be able to repeat Cooper I: only nuclear options remain

Rarely can there have been such a disparity between the apparent dullness of the procedural minutiae of an amendment to a technical Bill about Northern Ireland, and the breathless attention paid it by the political commentariat as there was this week. Wrongly.

They might as well not have bothered. In trying to find processes to avoid the government proroguing parliament in late October (processes which might not work anyway), a lot of people from MPs to journalists seem to be missing the wood for the trees.

Perhaps the best way of understanding why they’re wrong is to ask why they think the government might want to prorogue parliament then. The assumed answer is so as to prevent parliament from doing something to stop Brexit on October 31 – which effectively means a No Deal Brexit.

As an aside, in the unlikely event that there is a deal agreed (which presumably would be something very like the existing one with perhaps some minor tweaks to give a figleaf of political cover), it’s almost certain that the UK couldn’t leave on Halloween. The government isn’t allowed to ratify the deal not only until parliament’s ratified it but also until an implementation bill has been passed. That would surely take longer than the few weeks in October that parliament’s sitting.

However, much more likely is that there isn’t a deal. The question then becomes what could parliament do to express the undoubted majority opposed to a No Deal Brexit?

Taking a step back, we need to remember that the date of 31 October is embedded in both UK and EU law. Consequently, only a change to those legal provisions can amend what is now the default. Put another way, motions in parliament have symbolic value only and aren’t enough.

The fear or hope, depending on which side you’re on, is that parliament might be able to repeat the trick from earlier this year and pass a Cooper II bill, requiring the government to seek a further extension. The chance of this though is overrated. It’s far from clear whether the MPs can take control of parliamentary business as they did in April; the opening used at that time isn’t available now and MPs threw away the chance to repeat the trick via an opposition day debate motion last month. If you can’t introduce the bill, you can’t instruct the government.

That said, even if you can introduce the bill, there’s no guarantee it’ll work. May played along but only because she chose to. She could, quite consistently with Cooper I, have rejected the EU’s counter-offer of an extension and let the clock run out on April 12. Alternatively, she could have asked in such a way as to invite rejection. The Commons might command the PM but it cannot command the European Council. A Cooper II bill would struggle to tie down a government intent on leaving, deal or no deal.

So if parliament couldn’t block No Deal, why the fuss over prorogation? Good question. My guess is that it’s a mental distraction exercise among MPs who really don’t want to face up to the reality and remain – for now – to shadow-box within the confines of the Spring Brexit debates.

In truth, there are only two ways to stop No Deal, if the government is set on it. The first is to pass a Revoke Act. Unlike a Cooper II, this could be specific, leave no wriggle room and wouldn’t require consent from the EU27. The practical problem is that there’s almost certainly no majority for it. It’s one thing to kick the can or even advocate a second referendum; it’s quite another to revoke Brexit altogether without consulting the electorate. And of course, as with a Cooper II, it requires the rebel MPs to gain control of parliamentary business first, which may be hard. Even if they can though, it’d be better for the government to face the proposed legislation down than run and hide behind a prorogation because it’d almost certainly win the key votes.

The other option is a Vote of No Confidence. If you really don’t like the government’s policy, and you can’t change the policy, then change the government. This is the more likely route and may well succeed – although the natural consequence of MPs voting to bring down Boris (especially in October), is that they must be prepared to install someone else, and in reality that means Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn surely won’t allow Labour to prop up any alternative administration and you can’t have one without either the Labour or Tory party. Time pressures mean that there couldn’t be an election before Brexit Day (though an election with Brexit taking place half-way through would be interesting!), so it really would be essential to vote confidence in someone else, if only to seek and gain a further extension.

Could the government prorogue to prevent a Confidence vote? I don’t think so. While it might be constitutionally (never mind legally) valid to prorogue to head off something that the Commons might do – which after all doesn’t change the status quo – it’s a different matter to seek to remain in power when it’s questionable as to whether you actually do have the confidence of the House: a key constitutional question. I’d expect that if a government tried it, the Palace would only agree to proroguing parliament after the No Confidence vote had taken place, assuming it failed – in which case, MPs would have effectively assented to it.

And that’s what it probably comes down to: No Deal or No Confidence. Any Tory MPs thinking of rebelling need to understand that to prevent No Deal they will very likely need to vote to put Corbyn into Number 10 to do so. All else will either not be enough or won’t gain the necessary support.

Will they succeed? I don’t know. I think such a vote would be extremely close. A such, I think that both the odds-against prices against Brexit occurring this year (2.6 on Betfair, 6/4 best-priced with bookies), and on an election next year are value – an election this year is certainly possible but it’d be in December if it arose out of a late October Brexit crisis: next year is more likely.

What is certain is that this autumn will be crunch time. We’re highly likely to get either Brexit delivered, one way or another, or a change of government. Both would have profound consequences.

David Herdson.


The Corbyn end days might soon be upon us

July 19th, 2019

While all the focus has been on the Tory battle things have not been going well for the Labour leadership. The latest crisis follows the sacking off a senior party figure in the Lords and there is talk of a confidence motion.

The polling above by YouGov suggests that Corbyn no longer has the same magical hold on the membership as might have been the case 3 years ago. He’s taken a very different approach on Brexit than the the bulk of Labour MPs and those who vote for the party. Plus there has been ongoing row over anti-semitism which has simply not gone away.

He and his team give every impression of having a bunker mentality. Having been able to take over the party following his leadership victory in 2015 his close team is going to be very reluctant to give up any power and will fight fiercely.

I’ve just had a little punt at 5/2 that he won’t survive the year.

Mike Smithson


13 days to go until the Brecon and Radnorshire by election and the Tories accuse their opponents of vandalism

July 19th, 2019

The Brecon and Radnor Times   is reporting that the local Tories are complaining that their poster boards for the August 1st by-election are being vandalised by their opponents. See the Tweet above for an example.

The by-election,  the first in a CON held seat this parliament,  had been triggered by the successful recall petition against the incumbent Tory MP Chris Davies who had been been convicted and sentenced by the courts of falsifying his expenses. A total of 19% of electors in this huge constituency, largest by land area in England and Wales, had signed the petition which is well above the 10% threshold for creating a vacancy.

The seat was Tory until the old Liberal party gained it in a 1985 by-election only to lose it at the 2015 general election.

Because of the constituency’s size outdoor poster boards, particularity on main road,  play a big part and both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are going to great lengths to maximise their impact.

Voting actually started yesterday when about 10,000 postal voting packs were delivered.

What is extraordinary is that the MP who lost his seat as a result of his conviction and the petition was then selected by the Conservatives to be their candidate. This inevitably means that he himself is an issue. It is as though the Tories are making light of the criminal conviction.

As well as fighting off the LDs the Tories are having to cope with a strong challenge from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party which, of course, came very close to winning the Peterborough by-election last month.

According to the report linked to in the Tweet above the Tories have seen their offices vandalised with “Bollocks to Brexit” and “Bollocks to Boris” stickers and messages.

Currently the bookies make the LDs strong odds on favourite to regain the seat. Ladbrokes have them at 1/7.

Mike Smithson



BoJo’s assertions on leaving by October 31st fail to convince Brexit date punters

July 18th, 2019

Betdata.io chart of Betfair Exchange

On Betfair a 2019 exit is just a 39% chance

We’ve seen in the latest defeat for the government in proroguing parliaments that the parliamentary situation is going to make it very tough for Johnson. There simply aren’t the MP numbers there and now rebellious remain ministers are acting in unison in the same manner as the ERG hardliners.

The latest news that at least three cabinet ministers are ready to resign also adds to the air of crisis as the new man takes over.

I just wonder whether some of the hard-line commitments Johnson has made during the leadership contest will be quietly forgotten as he faces the harsh choice before him. It won’t be the first time that a politician has said one thing during an election and acted differently when elected.

I wished I’d bet against the 2019 exit a month or so ago when the odds were better.

Mike Smithson