Britain’s Next Conservative Leader: Betting Analysis

Following the legalisation of betting shops in the UK, the first political market to capture public attention was the 1963 contest to become the next Conservative Leader. The favourite Rab Butler was turned over by Alex Douglas-Home – starting a famous run of betting upsets which would become part of political folklore. In short, the early favourite never wins. 

We are on the verge of the latest, exceptionally wide-open renewal. Prime Minister Theresa May was matched at odds-on to leave office in 2018 and is trading at $1.60 to go before the end of 2019. Even if surviving, she has already committed to leave before the next scheduled general election in 2022.

Bookies not taking your political bets? You won’t have that problem at Betfair. We want winners. 

What are the Rules?

When May leaves, a contest will be swiftly called among Conservative members of parliament (MPs). Candidates – usually around five – put their names forward and are whittled down to a final pair. Then 120,000 or so party members decide via a run-off vote.

It doesn’t always work that way. MPs don’t always trust their members to pick a candidate they can work with and have been known to skip the final run-off. Two of the last three leaders – including May – were decided by MPs alone. There is talk of MPs choosing next time, before merely asking the members for their approval at a later date.

This last point is fundamentally important. As explained below, Brexit looms large over proceedings and a protracted, public leadership contest will be both ultra-divisive and terrible politics for the government.

Here’s my rankings for the top-ten candidates, along with analysis of the key dynamics.

1. Michael Gove

Currently Environment Secretary, Gove has stormed to the top of the betting in recent weeks. He’s been in my plans for months for one core reason – he will run. Everything about his behaviour screams ambition and auditioning for the job.

If May goes imminently and an emergency replacement required to complete or renegotiate Brexit, nobody is better positioned. The party is overwhelmingly pro-Brexit and Gove is the most senior minister to have voted Leave in 2016. Unlike most Brexiters, he seems able to reach out to Remainer colleagues.  

Support from Britain’s overwhelmingly pro-Tory press is always important, in order to win over this older than average electorate. The impeccably connected Gove landed the first interview with the new President Trump, while his old boss Rupert Murdoch sat in the room. Mrs Gove, aka Sarah Vine, is also a leading journalist at a Tory newspaper, the Daily Mail.

2. Dominic Raab

If members decide, it is hard to see a non-Brexiter candidate winning. Their common complaint about May is that she voted to Remain in 2016 and doesn’t believe in Brexit. Even assuming the UK does leave on time, or soon after, this party will continue to tear itself apart during the subsequent trade deal negotiation.

First tipped at 27-1 in 2017, Raab’s star has risen fast. He landed the plum job of Brexit Secretary, then shrewdly timed his resignation – rather than stomach May’s unpopular deal with the EU – to perfect effect. Unlike most of the principal candidates he voted to Leave and this cemented his purity on that issue.

At 44, he’s certain to be prominent of the Right of the party for decades, and doesn’t have the baggage of his most important rival for – Boris Johnson. Raab is also adept at fighting culture wars and identity politics – a key attribute for aspiring politicians in 2019.

3. Amber Rudd

Brexit may be coming to define the Tories but most Tory MPs actually voted to Remain in 2016 – regardless of where they stand now with regards honoring the referendum. The bulk aren’t purists and will play a big part in the first round of this contest. Many will likely coalesce around Amber Rudd.

She has covered May’s back for years, doing countless set-piece interviews at difficult times and even standing in when the PM bottled a ‘Leaders Debate’ at the last election. Rudd was a Remainer and is still regarded as such. A major problem if it goes to the members, but I can see her making the final two.

Her ambition is evident. She hired the infamous Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, claiming it was merely to defend a tiny majority in her constituency but that doesn’t wash given the demand for Crosby’s services. She is indeed facing a tough fight to retain her seat so making name recognition gains from a leadership bid would make obvious sense.

4. Sajid Javid

The case for Javid is, to a large extent, about image rather than any political creed or substance. A Muslim and son of a bus driver would project a very different front to a party often accused of racism, Islamophobia and representing the wealthy.

That isn’t to say he lacks the competence of his rivals. His early tenure as Home Secretary suggests both immediate leadership ambitions plus a populist streak that will play well with the base. He voted Remain in 2016 but has since been more associated with Brexiters.

5. Tom Tugendhat

Here’s a Remainer with the potential to cut across – at least with the wider country. Tugendhat is a former Army Officer, fast making a name for himself as an articulate backbencher and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Lack of cabinet experience would probably rule him if the contest happens soon but, a year down the line, he could be the coming man.

6. Boris Johnson

The former Foreign Secretary, Mayor of London and unofficial Brexit ‘leader’ cuts through with parts of the electorate that others can only dream of, and his obsession with becoming Prime Minister has been a talking point for years. However, Britain’s best known politician is further down these rankings than the odds imply.

That fame, rather than his real chance, explains why Boris was matched at odds-on earlier to succeed May and remains at single figure odds. In reality, few MPs have confidence in his competence and even fewer trust him. That explains why he didn’t run last time. Plus since Brexit, his image has become toxic among Remainers. Overbet and past his sell by date.

7. Jeremy Hunt

Another likely runner. Hunt is Foreign Secretary and one should always consider the occupant of that post when a vacancy for PM emerges. Again, the ambition is obvious but his route to the top job would surely have to come via MPs in the first round. Back in 2016, Hunt was considered an arch-Remainer and attempts since to boast Brexiter credentials don’t wash.

8. Penny Mordaunt

An interesting outsider with a big future. After Gove, Mordaunt is probably the likeliest Brexiter still in the Cabinet. Her backstory – losing her mother to breast cancer and becoming a teenage carer to her brother, then becoming a reservist for the Navy – will generate plenty of good publicity if and when she runs. She has a background in PR and developed important connections when working for George W Bush. I’m not convinced she’ll run this time but watch this space.

9. Esther McVey

Alternatively, here’s a woman I do expect to run, although she would still be a big outsider. Since resigning from the Cabinet over the Brexit deal, she has become a prominent advocate of ‘No Deal’. This provides a constant media platform and puts her in tune with the majority of Tory members, but it is hard to see how she ends up as one of the top two choices of MPs.

10. Gavin Williamson

I can’t make an obvious case for Williamson – he voted Remain and has been anything but impressive on the media since becoming Defence Secretary – but he seems more of a player than first appears. Formerly Chief Whip – drawing inevitable comparisons with Frank Underwood – he was deemed to be a key endorsement for May, and was swiftly promoted. Oh and he keeps a tarantula on his desk.

What about Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Glaringly absent from the list is the darling of the members, an ultra Brexiter aka the MP for the 19th century. At one stage earlier, he was the favourite. If running for leader, Mogg would have a great chance but he has always ruled it out and I believe him. He wants to be Speaker of the House of Commons, and knows his candidacy would split the party due to his ultra-Catholic social views.

Betting Strategy

Theresa May has committed to leave before the next scheduled general election in 2022, and she’s odds on to leave sooner. The standout betting prospect is Michael Gove. He has the ambition, network and pro-Tory media support to be value at $6.

 BACK – Michael Gove at $6.00+

Meanwhile, the second favourite, Boris Johnson, looks well under the odds. Britain’s most famous politician’s image has become toxic among Remainers and he’s missed his window, in our opinion. 

 LAY –  Boris Johnson at $8.00 or less

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