If you thought that political betting was just about predicting how many seats the Tories will get at the General Election then think again.
Political betting has been happening for at least half a millennium. Hefty sums were staked in Renaissance Italy on the outcome of elections taking place in Venice and Genoa and, most popular of all, on Papal elections – a market which is now gaining similar popularity.
As early as 1549 the Venetian Ambassador to Rome, Matteo Dandolo reported: ‘Many tens of thousands of crowns’ had changed hands between Cardinals’ attendants during that year’s Papal Conclave. Such gambling was outlawed in 1591 by Pope Gregory XIV.
The 18th Century
Although the term was not in general use at the time, Sir Robert Walpole was effectively Prime Minister in the 1720s – and he was no stranger to a wager. Fellow MP, Mr Pulteney interrupted a speech the PM had made, accusing him of misquoting classic philosopher Horace. Walpole immediately bet Pulteney one guinea that he was correct, only to be informed by the Clerk of the House that he was not – whereupon Walpole contemptuously hurled a guinea across the House, to be neatly caught by Pulteney with the remark: ‘This is the only money I have received from the Treasury for many years.’
During the mid to late years of the 18th century, the clubs of London – White’s, Boodle’s, Brooks’s amongst them – hosted great aristocratic gambling games of whist and faro, to which political figures, such as the ‘Lords Selwyn, Carlisle, Robert Spencer and other great Whigs’ were reportedly engaged to such an extent that social historian Stella Margetson records that ‘it was nothing for a gentleman to lose £30,000 or £40,000 in a single evening.’
White’s maintained a betting book from 1743 onwards, which listed all the wagers made between members – and political wagers made up a significant percentage of the bets contained therein.
The earliest such transaction is listed under 12 February 1745, and reads:
‘Ld Leicester betts Ld Montfort One hundred Guineas that Six or more Peers of the British Parliament including Minors, Catholics, Bishops and Sixteen Scotch Peers Die between the Twenty ninth of April 1745 and the Twenty ninth of April 1746 inclusive; and one hundred guineas on each of the Four following Years on the same event.’
(A note records: ‘Lost the first year by Lord Leicester.)
It appears that the longevity of politicians was a very popular topic on which to speculate back then as this type of bet is repeated frequently throughout the Betting Book.
A Mr Jeffreys ‘betts Mr Stephen Jansen Fifty Guineas that thirteen Members of Parliament don’t Die from the first of Jany 1744/45 to the first of Jany 1745/6’ – but adds pertinently, reflecting the turbulent nature of those days – ‘exclusive of what may be killed in battle.’
Born in 1783, John Gully was probably the first bookmaker to grace the House of Commons.
Hailing from a village between Bath and Bristol, Gully was brought up to become a butcher but by the age of 21 found himself in a debtors’ prison in London. He was befriended there by a prize-fighter and eventually Gully was hailed as champion-elect of his country – a position he consolidated in the ring when, at Six Mile Bottom near Newmarket, he saw off former steamboat skipper Bob Gregson. Gully cut his boxing career short and purchased a pub in Carey Street, London, where he set up business as a bookmaker. He prospered and became a prominent owner of racehorses – eventually winning the Derby twice. Gully’s increasing wealth had seen him widen his interests, and in 1832 he became Liberal MP for Pontefract.
The 19th Century
A former Army officer, Lord George Bentinck, born in 1802 – who between 1836 and 1846 would take it upon himself successfully to reform the racing industry – requested that parliament be adjourned every Derby Day as an unofficial public holiday.
A wager on the sober behaviour or otherwise of the Prime Minister of the day was featured in a privately published publication, whose title is ‘The Text of the Old Betting Book of All Souls College 1815-73. Political betting was already a hot topic, it seems, as the book details 654 wagers made between college members, 100 of which concerned domestic politics, including one struck in April 1868 – ‘Colchester bets Robarts 5/- that Mr Disraeli is not drunk again before the end of the year.’
When red hot favourite, Ladas won the 1894 Derby at prohibitive odds of 2/9, his owner, Lord Rosebery, was Prime Minister. He was congratulated by many but harangued and criticised by Non-comformists and Radicals who believed racing and betting to be terrible sins.
The 20th Century
The modern era of political betting began in 1963, the infamous Christine Keeler affair brought down firstly Defence Minister Jack Profumo and then, when he resigned, having lied to MPs in the House about his liaison with Miss Keeler, who was also said to be involved with a prominent Russian diplomat, also claimed Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
Bookies began taking bets on Macmillan’s successor - Rab Butler was 5/4 favourite, with Lord Hailsham at 7/4; Reginald Maudling 6/1. Unfancied 16/1 shot, Alec Douglas-Home joined the contest late and eventually won.
Perhaps the shrewdest political punter of recent years was the late Sir Clement Freud. In 1973, yet to be knighted, he was standing at a by-election for the Liberal Party in the Isle of Ely, and was interested to learn that he was a big outsider. Declaring ‘Odds of 33/1 are absurd against a trier’ Freud invested enough to produce potential winnings of some £50,000 – ‘decent bookmakers accept £10,000 to £300 and I had several of those’ - whereupon the odds collapsed to 8/1. The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘the clever money seems to be going on Freud’. ‘It was actually’, observed Freud wryly, ‘the Freud money going on Freud.’
Of course, he won, adding another ‘six figure’ sum at the 1979 General Election when he tipped and backed four winning Liberals. In 1983 Freud gambled on Liberal colleague Simon Hughes winning the Bermondsey by-election, staking £60 on him when he was a 16/1 outsider as canvassing began, and going in again with £100 when Hughes’ odds shortened to 5/1, adding a further £400 a 7/4, even telling a bookmaker contact, ‘I feel this is very close to insider trading’ whereupon he was reassured: ‘Nonsense, people always tell lies to canvassers.’ So Freud slapped down another £600 at 5/6. Hughes won in a landslide. ‘I accept that bookmakers know more than me about horses,’ said Freud in October 1999, ‘but the reverse is true when it comes to politics.’
County Durham cabbie, George Elliott, 37, picked up a fare in his taxi in 1983, and got talking to the passenger, a young politician who, he thought, ‘had something about him’.
After dropping him off, Elliott sought out a local bookie and asked what odds he could get about the newly elected Sedgefield MP, one Tony Blair, making his way through the Parliamentary ranks to the very top as PM. George was quoted – and snapped up to the tune of a tenner – 500/1, and was duly rewarded with £5,000 winnings when Blair and Labour won the Election and he became PM.
Bernard Murphy, standing as an Independent, contested a 1985 council election in Cork City, Ireland, where he was, according to local bookies, a 33/1 no-hoper. Acting on a cunning plan hatched by his helper John Lennon – no relation – Murphy had posters and pamphlets printed, pointing out to potential voters that they could ‘prove them wrong and make some money while you’re at it. £165 for £5 – vote yourself the money’. Suddenly, from being a no-hoper, joke candidate, Murphy, whose main platform was ‘to abolish gas meters’ and whose current occupation, having once been a sandwich-board man, was newspaper vendor, began to make his own headlines. Local bookie Liam Cashman was inundated, Murphy’s odds tumbled to 9/4, he polled over 1,000 votes and romped home. Cashman – who probably didn’t vote for Murphy – lost a reported £20,000.
In April 1986 it was alleged by flamboyant MP Robert Kilroy-Silk that in quiet spells in the House ‘we talk amongst ourselves and place bets on the size and weight of (former Tory PM) Ted Heath’s belly’.
In 1994, then Liberal Democrat president, Charles Kennedy, was embarrassed by a wager which won him £2500. He had collected by placing a £50 bet at 50/1 on the Party to flop at the European Elections by winning just two seats when they had been talking up their chances and pollsters had them down to win double figures. When details of the bet became public knowledge after a reporter confronted Kennedy, he faced criticism from all sides and, in a clear effort to detect the flak, he claimed that his winnings would be going towards Party funds. In a 1999 Guardian interview, Kennedy insisted, ‘I wasn’t betting against the Party. It was in line with what I’d publicly predicted. Looking back, it’s funny now, but it was embarrassing at the time. If I could change one walk with destiny, I wouldn’t walk to the bookies on that particular occasion.’
With five days to go before the 1992 General Election called by John Major, who had succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader in 1990, the Grand National delivered perhaps the most obvious coincidence tip for many a long year when it was won by 14/1 shot Party Politics, to the disgust of bookies – a career path Mr Major himself may well have followed-when he appeared on Desert Island Discs he revealed that in his younger years he’d been a bookies’ runner: ‘from time to time neighbours would dispatch me to place bets with an illicit bookie who plied his trade in the environs of Loughborough Junction Station.’
At 1997 General Election, the Portsmouth South Tory MP came up with a master-stroke of strategy to help him hold on to his seat – for which he held a majority of just a couple of hundred votes. David Smith decided that describing the people who used betting shops as the ‘dregs of society’ might just gain him a few extra, vital votes. They didn’t. Bookies immediately hit back by making him odds-on to lose his seat – and he promptly did so.
Robin Cook, who died in August 2005, was born in 1946 and elected to parliament in 1974, having married his wife Margaret in 1969. It was she who introduced him to horse racing and he became very interested in the sport, actually becoming a racing tipster for the Glasgow Herald in 1991, a role which lasted until 1998, the year after he and Margaret ended their marriage. ‘The difficulty of picking the winner of the race prevents even a politician from thinking he knows all the answers’ observed Cook, whose first ever public tip fell at the first fence in a race won by jockey A Tory! When Cook gave up the tipping column as he was now Labour’s Foreign Secretary, the SNP’s Alex Salmond, another keen racing and betting man, took it over.
The 21st Century
In December 2005, a Hill’s client staked £200,000 on David Cameron becoming Tory Leader, at odds of 1/25 – making an £8000 profit.
Perhaps for the first time, the world of racing/betting, and politics, came together to host an official government Cabinet meeting when Exeter racecourse did so on Friday, 5 February 2010, when then Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought his team to the track.
For the first time, a political Party was sponsored after William Hill’s Graham Sharpe did a unique deal which changed the name of one of the best loved minority Parties to The Monster Raving Loony William Hill Party for the 2010 General Election campaign. The Party was founded by a great friend of Graham’s, the late pop star turned political personality, Screaming Lord Sutch, whose 15 million to one bet with Graham that he would become Prime Minister got him into the Guinness Book of World Records, but not into Parliament – he lost a record 41 deposits trying and, in the process, was inadvertently responsible for the increase in cost of those deposits from £150 to the current £500 when he irritated Margaret Thatcher so much by standing against her that she instigated the rise in an effort to deter such nuisances from bothering her and her colleagues. Fortunately, she didn’t succeed.
Two Conservative candidates who were elected in the 2010 General Election campaign had been together at University in 1998. Chris Kelly (Dudley South) and Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) backed themselves with William Hill for £50 stakes at odds of 10,000/1 each to become Prime Minister – giving them a £500,000 incentive each to do so. Kelly will not be winning his wager as he is standing down at the General Election – but Tomlinson is aiming to be re-elected, maintaining his chances of landing a half-a-million-pound payout.