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Friday, 16 November, 2018

Fickle floating voters have put paid to prediction game

Ignore the experts and focus on value

Theresa May: reputation is shredded
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I'll tell you what: it's time to give up betting on elections and switch to something less dependent on chance. So this column will shortly be rebranded: either "How to win on internet casinos" or "Gaming machines - Your guide to earning big money."

This is not entirely a joke. The last big electoral events - two British elections, one in the US and the Brexit referendum - have floored almost all the alleged experts ("We've all had enough of experts" - Michael Gove) and all but the most speculative punters. In the case of the UK elections, it is possible to offer a tentative explanation.

Britain's voters used to support political parties as they do football teams. You were either one thing or the other, and most people would no more switch sides than switch from City to United. The small percentage of floaters decided who won.

Now it's a completely different phenomenon. It's more a matter of fashion, of sudden fads and crazes, like a bar or nightclub suddenly becoming hot. "We're all heading for Corbyn's tonight. There are some great special offers." "No one's eating at May's any more. The menu's rubbish and the barmaid's a cow."

If I was capable of foreseeing that kind of trendiness, I wouldn't be writing columns. I would have made my fortune years ago and would now be either launching a rescue package for Godolphin or holding orgies on my yacht.

Even a week ago experienced operators on the ground sensed that Labour was doing a bit better - but failed to spot anything like the extent of the movement. Less than four months ago Labour lost a by-election to the Tories and struggled to hold a rock-solid seat in Stoke against UKIP. Four months from now, maybe four weeks, four days even, the kaleidoscope will change again.

But for the moment the fickle populace is out of the equation and it is up to the politicians, operating within more predictable professional constraints. On that basis one can start to offer a few preliminary thoughts.

For a start Theresa May is done for, probably not as prime minister in the short term but certainly as party leader for the next election. Her speech outside Downing Street on Friday - graceless and tin-eared - made sure of that. Unless the entire EU rolls over in the Brexit negotiations and offers Britain billions to go away, her reputation is shredded.

But I am pretty sure that election will not come this year, whatever Jeremy Corbyn says. It's not far off July. Unless a new leader can be found by acclamation (most unlikely) it will take the Tories months to find one. The parties need to replenish their coffers. And remember, parliament - under the current law - has the final say, and 430 MPs have to want one. Do they want to spend another month on the doorsteps talking to fed-up voters or stay in the paid-for warmth of Westminster? Quite.

The new Commons is surely too unstable to sustain a full term but there could well be a tacit agreement to try hold it together for now. (That might even be in the national interest, for what that's worth.) It could be 2018 or 2020 but a post-Brexit poll in 2019 looks like the best-value punt to me.

Corbyn at the moment is in heaven: losing heroically for him is the perfect result since his promises don't have to be tested against cold reality. And if he makes a magnanimous effort to work with his backbenchers, Labour can make May's life a misery. But things can change fast, and his high tide may already have happened. Parliamentary leadership has not been his strong point. Let's see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, the Tories will be thinking incessantly about succession. They have tried being boring, and it has failed abysmally. So unboring Boris Johnson is a reasonable favourite at the moment. But one false move, one daft remark, could change all that.

Right now almost every hour brings a new wrinkle. I was starting to imagine a scenario whereby George Osborne inveigled himself back into the Commons and the picture: I was thinking of a 50-1 flutter. Then he announced on Sunday morning that May was a "dead woman walking". The Tory members, who get the final say, value superficial courtesy, not that kind of nastiness.

Nothing has settled down yet. May's deal with Ulster's Democratic Unionists may yet unravel. Their hard line on gays is decades behind the times, and some of the Ulster types have a record on extremism that is at least as questionable as Corbyn's.

Great bets are possible, but move fast: look for long shots (Nigel Farage's return to UKIP excepted) and value. As the first woman PM once put it: "It's a funny old world."

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Experienced operators on the ground sensed that Labour was doing a bit better - but failed to spot anything like the extent of the movement
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