When Theresa May stunned the world yesterday, money poured into Betfair markets in favour of a massive Tory victory. Paul Krishnamurty explains why and wonders what could possibly stop them...
"If Labour win, opinion polling can be officially pronounced dead. It won't happen. The best they can realistically hope for is to cut the deficit, avoid losing too many seats and hope the Lib Dems restrict the Tory majority."
During the 20th century, political scientists referred to UK Conservatives as the most successful political party in the Western world. Their secret was an ability to move with the times and adapt to a changing electorate. When a core policy became unpopular, they would drop it. While their rivals tore themselves apart over ideology, the Tories simply reinvented themselves when required.
Two decades ago, with the party split down the middle over EU membership and out of touch with modern, socially liberal norms, that narrative appeared dated. With spectacularly bad timing, Geoffrey Wheatcroft released his book, "The Strange Death of Tory England' in 2005, just as David Cameron was about to become leader.
Yesterday, when Theresa May shocked the nation by calling an early election, the overwhelming consensus was that the Tories are back in total control of British politics and on the verge of emulating their greatest victories of last century.
Brexit benefits Tories, decimates Labour
Once again, the key is their changed response to the issue that now transcends all others. The party that took the UK into the EU; that signed the Single European Act and Maastricht Treaties; whose PM led the campaign to stay in the EU and whose replacement was also a Remainer are now very much the Brexit Party. Perfect, for an election which will be dominated by that single topic.
While Labour immediately descended into confusion and civil war after the referendum, the Tories offered a clear message and competent candidate. No ifs, no buts, May would respect the result and push through Brexit. The reward seems certain to be a mandate for the new PM to pursue whatever Brexit she wants, thanks to an increased majority in Parliament.
The message from Betfair markets couldn't be clearer. The Tories are [1.08] (93%) to win Most Seats and [1.23] to win another Overall Majority. While the former odds are prohibitive, this is actually a great way to make 8% profit minus commission in just six weeks. There is simply no rational argument to oppose them.
Consider the basic numbers. After the 2015 election, the Tories had 98 more seats than Labour. Prior to that 7% victory margin, most expected a near dead-heat. Two years on, the Tories are polling around 20% ahead. They made history in Copeland recently, becoming the first governing party to gain a seat in nearly 40 years. When it comes to 'Best PM', May consistently leads Jeremy Corbyn by over 30%.
Many will doubtless point to the polling and market failures of 2015 and 2016. Few foresaw a Tory majority, let alone Donald Trump becoming US President. Brexit was a big-priced outsider on polling day. If the numbers were wrong then, why not now about Corbyn's Labour?
This often repeated argument is bogus. The polls were around 5-7% wrong at the 2015 election. Much less for Trump or Brexit. Moreover in each case the numbers overstated liberal opinion and turnout. Conservative voters are older on average and vote reliably and consistently. Liberals tend to be younger and less likely to be even registered, let alone vote.
If Labour win, opinion polling can be officially pronounced dead. It won't happen. The best they can realistically hope for is to cut the deficit, avoid losing too many seats and hope the Lib Dems restrict the Tory majority by winning their own marginals.
Rather than taking on such rock-solid favourites, the task for bettors over the next six weeks is to make sense of the re-alignment in British opinion, it's implications in specific constituencies and the effect on each party's seat totals. To what extent the demise of UKIP and toxicity of Corbyn changes the numbers, as they did in Copeland. We will be examining precisely such questions on these pages.
Nevertheless, one should always be prepared to think the unthinkable in betting. By playing devils' advocate, we can at least consider what could go wrong for the Tories. There's nothing to suggest it in the poll numbers but that, of course, could change during the heat and light of an election campaign.
The case against an overwhelming Tory win
First, never underestimate the importance of the media's drive for ratings. They have six weeks to report on an election where nobody without a partisan view thinks the result is in question. After years of hammering Corbyn on an hourly basis, the Tories may finally be scrutinised properly. The failure and growing unpopularity of austerity; their total failure to meet targets on immigration or the deficit; the emergency condition of the NHS. The lack of detail around Brexit.
Weeks of that could take the shine off Mrs May's image. So, already, has the decision to call the election. The immediate reaction on call-in shows was "Why"? Few can see a genuine need for an early election, other than simply to serve the interests of the Tory party. We will be constantly reminded that she has gone back on her repeated word to not hold one.
Political honeymoons are short. This makes her look less the competent national leader than just another opportunist who breaks promises. Voters see through such calculations nowadays and have never been more inclined towards a protest vote. Many will be annoyed or irritated by yet another election and could abstain.
Indeed, May could do without constant speculation about her motives. It is already assumed that she wanted to capitalise on spectacular polls that may prove short-lived, getting her own mandate before Brexit has a chance to go wrong. Others might speculate that the election was called early before police charges were brought over electoral fraud in up to 20 constituencies. How the race pans out in those seats, especially South Thanet if Nigel Farage runs again, demands close attention.
We also must consider the possibility for Labour and particularly the Lib Dems' overperforming expectations. When you're faring as badly as Corbyn, the only way is up. The campaign gives him a very rare chance to speak directly to the country, rather than via a hostile media outlet (all of them). What if he surprises and connects? Again, the modern voter will not need much convincing that the media is biased.
However these are just talking points that may or may not affect the campaign. The starting position is crystal clear. The 52% that voted for Brexit regret nothing and are militantly opposed to anyone who vaguely sounds like quibbling with the result.
May's only rivals for that 52% are UKIP, whose sole MP has quit and whose share looks set to disintegrate. In contrast, the 48% are split between three or four parties, with big regional distinctions. Until some actual evidence of a change in these basic truths emerges, we must assume the Tories are on course for an historic, overwhelming victory.