IN Scotland, the act of placing a bet is to pit a line oan (put a line on). Michael Gove is now discovering that, for past recreation, an occasional flutter on the gee-gees would have been a lesser gamble than doing lines of the Class A variety. Gove’s past acquaintance with Charlie was a revelation which the incomparable Mark Steyn described thus: ‘For American readers, the notion of Michael Gove as a cokehead is roughly analogous to discovering Mike Pence spends his weekends in a gay leather bar.’
Until Gove’s ‘crime and mistake’ of taking cocaine twenty-odd years ago became public, he was comfortably the second favourite to become leader and prime minister. Indeed his betting odds had shortened to around 4/1 as bookmakers and punters perceived an ever-increasing chance of frontrunner Boris again being cut down by Gove, albeit more openly than in 2016 when ‘Mike The Knife’ carried out what the Telegraph called ‘the most spectacular political assassination in a generation’.
At the time of writing Michael Gove is reported to have retained the backing of 30-odd MPs, a parliamentary support still second only to Boris in the number of public declarations. But due to cold calculation rather than moral judgement, betting on the former snow-sniffer immediately dried up: according to one bookmaker, ‘Michael Gove was simply unbackable as the 4/1 second favourite following his recent admission of taking cocaine. We pushed him out to 6/1, then 11/1 and he’s now as big as 20/1 to be the next Tory Leader.’
The candidate currently with fewest public endorsements is Andrea Leadsom – unsurprising given that she stayed in Cabinet far too long, repeatedly voting for May’s woeful Withdrawal Agreement, to be credible for overseeing a clean Brexit. The bookies place Leadsom alongside Mark Harper and Esther McVey in the competition to avoid coming last in the first ballot of MPs.
In other words, the bookmakers believe it probable that Andrea Leadsom will fall at the first hurdle, either by receiving the least number of votes or by failing to obtain the 16 required to stay in. But paradoxically, the same bookies currently rank her as third favourite, well ahead of Gove, Javid and Raab, at around 8/1 to win the contest.
Last week Betfair reported Leadsom ‘surging in the market’, having become ‘the latest outsider to be backed heavily’, and evidently this money is the reason for her relatively short odds. Though why she should have attracted such betting interest is a mystery: evidently there is, somewhere, a school of thought that Andrea Leadsom somehow can stay in the race, be the recipient of votes as others drop out and, ultimately, have a chance with the membership. All of which seems as fanciful as, well, Vice-President Pence cruising in lederhosen.
Unless, that is, Boris should crash and burn during the parliamentary voting stage – which, given his unreliability, cannot entirely be ruled out. Of particular interest will be how many votes BoJo receives during the first round. At the time of writing the bookmakers’ shortest price of 9/4 is for Johnson getting 100 or more; yet oddly, his scoring in the 80s, at odds of 5/2, is rated more likely than his vote being in the 90s, for which 3/1 currently is available.
On Tuesday, Guido Fawkes reported Boris being well out in front with 69 of 204 endorsements and 109 MPs still undeclared. But even making the huge assumption that no one speaks with forked tongue, Johnson’s support almost certainly is soft: many of those 69 will be much more sceptical in private than in public. Unless Boris achieves at least 90 in the first round and establishes a commanding lead, his support might easily melt away.
The nearest challenger, almost certainly, will be Jeremy Hunt. In late May Hunt still was being regarded as a long shot of around 16/1, which over the past week was slashed to as little as 7/2. Although his odds have since eased slightly to 5/1, Hunt has become cemented as the second favourite.
Compared with Michael Gove’s recreational activity, Hunt has been a Boy Scout, admitting only to ‘a cannabis lassi when backpacking through India’. In which case Jeremy will be relieved that when trekking in Asia his sherpa was not the opium-smoking Rory Stewart.
Although he is becoming the chief beneficiary of Gove’s difficulty, even before last weekend’s exposé Jeremy Hunt was gaining traction – and doing so in spite of his often opaque pronouncements. Hunt claims to be a ‘born-again Brexiteer’ yet displays none of the conviction one would expect from a genuine convert. He promises ‘as a last resort, with a heavy heart’ to pursue no-deal ahead of no-Brexit but acknowledges that the Commons will not allow him to do so; yet he also rules out attempting to change the parliamentary arithmetic and will avoid at all costs a confidence vote and general election which he calls ‘political suicide’.
Should unforeseen events force an election before Brexit, God help the Tories lumbered with a leader who unwisely already has conceded defeat: in his pitch for the job, Hunt included the admission that in such circumstances the party he heads will be ‘annihilated’. This almost certainly is true; nonetheless, it is a strange leader who, in advance, goes on the record with his expectation of a trouncing.
Having become the preferred candidate of lukewarm Leavers and remorseless Remainers, Jeremy Hunt understandably has been dubbed Theresa-in-trousers: unwilling to force a no-deal exit and terrified of an early election, his only aim is to achieve some trivial tweaking of May’s surrender document and offer the vague hope that Parliament finally will approve it.
Even that modest ambition is wishful thinking by the man who self-describes as the ‘serious leader’. Endorsed by Brexit-blockers Amber Rudd – ‘these are serious times and we need a respected statesman’ – Greg Clark and (it is presumed) Philip Hammond, what would be extremely ‘serious’ is having the dead hands of that unholy trinity continuing to steer a Hunt-led government.
The bookmakers’ odds suggest a Johnson-Hunt run-off is all but certain. However, unless Boris is out of sight after the first round, it is plausible that Hunt, by subsequently accumulating votes from defeated cabinet members Gove, Hancock, Javid and Stewart, might yet end up with greater parliamentary support than Johnson.
Conventional wisdom is that BoJo will clean up amongst the membership. But whereas potential Tory voters tend to be more bullish on Brexit than most parliamentarians, the much smaller membership is liable to be more conformist.
Will party loyalists go against the parliamentarians if, as is possible, Hunt strongly emerges as MPs’ favoured choice? Don’t bet on it.