When you hear the words ‘economic recovery’, do you think: ‘Great! Britain is on the mend’? Or ‘Damn! I should have bet on the Tories to win an outright majority’? If your reaction is the latter, this column is for you.
Back in March, when economists were talking about a triple dip and Chancellor Osborne looked like a miserable failure, you could have found odds of 5/1 on a Tory majority in 2015. Today things look rosier, and William Hill is offering 11/4.
The Ukip treasurer and spread-betting tycoon Stuart Wheeler didn’t miss the trick. Given his position in politics, he can hardly be praying for a runaway Cameron victory. But Wheeler is a gambling man first. During the summer, he backed the Tories with a bet that was, as he puts it, ‘bigger than a fiver’; at 4/1, the Tories ‘looked a little long’.
Now if anything they look a little short. Their odds may have inched outwards last week — 3/1 on Betfair as I write — with all the hype about Ed Miliband’s conference s peech. But I’ll wager that by the time you read this, after David Cameron’s party address on Wednesday, the price on a Tory win will have shrunk again. (A valuable if obvious tip: always back a party ahead of its annual conference, then ‘lay off’ — bet the other way — the day after the leader’s speech. Barring complete disaster, the spinners and tame hacks will almost always ensure that his message goes down well.)
We shouldn’t, however, underestimate Cameron’s ability to blow a winning position. Look at what he did with a ten-point poll lead in 2010. Whatever the macroeconomic indicators, it’s not as if most voters will be basking in feelgood by June 2015. The Tories are also increasingly threatened on the right by Ukip. In May, you could get 8/1 on Ukip winning more than one seat. Not any more.
Moreover, Labour are strong, even if you don’t buy the sudden transformation of Ed Miliband from embarrassing loser into Marxist mastermind. He already has 257 MPs behind him. As James Forsyth has pointed out, since 1884 only three parties have failed to convert such a strong position into victory. Suddenly, 5/4 for a Labour outright majority looks attractive.
But no honourable speculator can watch Miliband for long and keep a straight face. As some Tory campaigners well realise, the more right-wingers clock the danger of Red Ed, the more likely they are to withdraw support from Ukip and come back into the Tory fold.
Where does the smart money go? The most reliable poll of recent years has been the ICM Wisdom Index, which asks respondents not whom they’ll vote for but who they think will win. In 2010, the Wisdom Index was the poll that didn’t fall for ‘Cleggmania’. In 2013, while others have found large Labour leads, it has consistently reported a tighter race, with no clear majority. The most probable scenario by far is more coalition. But do you go for Con-Lib or Lab-Lib? At the moment, there’s not much value in either. You might not find terrific odds under ‘no overall majority’ — the best price seems to be 13/8 with Ladbrokes — and it’s a bit of an obvious punt. But as we stand, it’s the right call.
For a bit of fun, meanwhile, why not look to the ‘next Tory leader’ market? Boris, Theresa May and Philip Hammond are the hardy favourites, but are all badly priced: May is 4/1, which nobody outside of Westminster can think is a good bet. Much better to follow your head rather than your heart, and back the dreaded Osborne, who represents value at 16/1. If we’re having a real recovery, he’ll take much of the credit. His relationships with his party and the media are improving, too, notwithstanding those lame attempts to sound less privileged. And in his speech at the party conference on Monday, he sounded like a man with his eye on the top job. So put on your best mockney accent and stick a tenner on the boy George.