Bet of the Day: Boris Johnson, Brexit and the General Election

14th September 2021

Back in 2013, Boris Johnson was asked whether he had ambitions to become Prime Minister when his then-friend, and then-leader David Cameron vacated the role. He famously answered, using a bit of rugby terminology, that “if the ball came loose at the back of the scrum, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at”. In 2019, after an attempt by Theresa May to pick up said ball, Johnson now finds himself “having a crack at” it. To seasoned politics watchers, who also follow rugby union, the consensus seems to be that he’s knocked the ball on several times and, to torture the metaphor a bit further, is now looking to kick it into touch.

The state of play is that, before Parliament came back from its recess – which in itself started a day after Johnson took office – the new Prime Minister decided that Westminster would be prorogued, preventing it from sitting for any more than four days before a five-week break, and then another three before he attended the EU summit on October 17th. At that summit, he would hope to secure a final Brexit deal, or leave with none. However, in the five days between the end of recess and the beginning of prorogation, Johnson has faced six parliamentary votes, lost them all, and seen his prorogation plans judged as “unlawful” by the Scottish Court of Session.

“Not a good start, Boris,” as one MP from the opposition benches helpfully noted in the aftermath of the first of those votes – which saw the Prime Minister forced in law to ask the EU for an extension to the Brexit process if he can’t get a deal. Johnson now wants to call a General Election, but Parliament also tied his hands there. So now, who knows what will happen next? Well, the bookmakers have some ideas…

An election soon, but when?

As recently as two months ago you would have longish odds on there being a General Election this side of 2020; with Johnson set to take office, the possibility of him calling for a vote he might lose seemed remote. Since then, with the new PM having announced his willingness to leave the EU with No Deal – and selected a Cabinet who were more than up for such an idea – it’s become more or less inevitable. Parliament has rebuffed two attempts to trigger an election, noting that calling one would have tied up negotiating time and made No Deal more likely, something only Johnson and a small band of loyal MPs wanted. However, pretty much everyone agrees that an election is necessary – quite apart from anything else, a government can’t stand if it keeps losing votes.

October 31st is the key date; unless an extension is secured by then, or the government gets a deal, the UK would leave the EU with No Deal. It’s also important for the opposition: Conservative (and therefore, Johnson’s) success in the election seems to rest on leaving the EU as soon as possible. If it goes beyond that date, their chances of winning it fall significantly. The bad news for Downing Street is that Betfair seem to rate the possibility of an October election as extremely unlikely: they’ve priced it at 33/1. More likely, things will come to a head in November – priced at 13/8 – with an election only being called after the EU summit, and needing at least five weeks of campaigning thereafter.

A record-breaking Prime Minister?

In April 1827, Tory Cabinet stalwart George Canning took on the role of Prime Minister, but he soon found his path to passing legislation complicated as a result of his death in August of the same year. To this day, he is the shortest-serving premier in British history, having completed just 119 days in the office. The luckless Canning’s name has recently trended on Twitter because it’s beginning to look like his record – like his own Premiership – may not see out the year. Unable to take full control of the Brexit process, stymied in attempting to call an election when he wanted it, and – possibly – failing to prorogue Parliament correctly… it’s starting to look as though, if he fell off London Bridge, Johnson couldn’t hit water.

As of this moment, Paddy Power have the new Prime Minister priced at 5/6 to beat Canning’s record and become the new ex-Prime Minister within that 119-day period. Should he lose an election, become so frustrated with Parliamentary procedure that he quits, or be removed from office as a result of being seen to ignore the rule of law – before November 20th – then Johnson would make history of a sort he probably never expected. Each of the above is more than possible; he’s stated that he will never ask for an extension to the Brexit process, but Parliament has bound him to do precisely that.

So, what’s next?

It’s fair to say that, politically speaking, the UK is living in uncertain times at the moment. Trying to predict what will happen next is a little like nailing jelly to a wall, and there are as many possible outcomes from the next few months as there are pundits ready to game out the next steps.

First of all, will Brexit happen on October 31st as planned? Betway think not, pricing an extension at 1/3. Assuming they are right, the extension will carry us into 2020, with the same bookmaker pricing an eventual Brexit between January and June of next year at 5/6. As for the election that will happen before the end of the year, the same bookmaker has some good news for Johnson; his Conservatives are 1/2 to win the largest number of seats. However, they’ve also got odds of 4/7 on no party winning an overall majority – and, short of coalition partners, Johnson’s party may find themselves out of office. In that event, who would be the new PM? Well, the current favourite is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, at 7/4. But at this stage, the future really is anyone’s guess.

Bets of the Day

No overall majority in next election (Betway, 4/7); Johnson to be shortest-term PM ever (Paddy Power, ⅚); Next General Election in November 2019 (Betfair, 13/8)

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