As the pressure piles on Boris Johnson, the Betfair markets regarding his future are moving dramatically. Events are moving fast and it is a challenge to keep up. By the time you read this article, the odds will have likely changed. They certainly have since I started writing last night!
Stratton exit won't close down scandal
Yesterday Johnson's ex-spokesman, then COP21 spokesman Allegra Stratton resigned. She was the star of the bombshell video of Downing Street staff laughing at a mock press conference about the 'fictional party' on December 18th last year, whilst the rest of the country was under lockdown.
Her scalp is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Until Tuesday, I remained sceptical that this story would really cut through to the public and hurt the government more than any other number of scandals which might, or might not, cut through. Then Ant and Dec got in on the act. The ultimate sign that a political story had gone mainstream.
Coming hot on the heels of the Peppa Pig debacle at the CBI Conference, this spelt real trouble for Johnson. He's become a laughing stock, with dismal approvals and a toxic brand that will be near-impossible to reverse. I needed no convincing that his days were numbered - having advised bets to that effect repeatedly - but expect this to hasten the timetable.
To compound matters, the Electoral Commission have today fined the Conservative Party £17,800 for breaching electoral law over the refurbishment of Johnson's flat. Worse, it appears Johnson himself misled Lord Geidt when investigating the matter. Labour are accusing the PM of 'lying' (a word cautious politicians such as Keir Starmer are generally loathe to use).
There are multiple betting options, all swinging rapidly towards ever earlier exits. A fortnight ago, I pressed up at 2.111/10 on previous lays at 1.84/5 about him staying as Conservative leader until 2024. That is now a 3.211/5 chance and I couldn't be more confident. In the same market, 2022 is a 2.26/5 chance.
New market around the Tory conference
To be more specific on the date, we have yes/no market on whether he'll make the Conservative Party conference in late September. Here, you can get 2.427/5 that he'll be gone by then. Or if you prefer before July 2022, 2.35/4 are the effective odds of laying the other side.
Any of those appeal now, although the safest bet is the 2022 option. Why? Because generally after a leader stands down, they stay in post throughout the subsequent leadership contest. That could take three months. It isn't out of the question by any means that the conference is used as hustings for the leadership - this has happened before, back in 2005, when David Cameron won.
My instinct is, however, that he'll be gone by then and the conference used as a platform for the new leader to distance themselves, and signal a fresh start to the country. The pressing question now is, what trigger and by what mechanism will Johnson be brought down.
Could a rival be behind the leaks?
Some of this - the party incident itself - involves a natural train of events. However politics being what it is, one must suspect actors conspiring behind the scenes. Lest we forget, Dominic Cummings blatantly sought to bring down Johnson last year in cahoots with an un-named network. Potential leadership candidate Matt Hancock was trapped with his mistress by still unexplained cameras in his offices. Somebody leaked the footage of that mock press conference.
Such set-ups and manufactured theatre are commonplace in the former USSR and, by my reckoning, an inevitable part of the growing Putinisation of Western politics. If it is a conspiracy, who stands to benefit and succeed Johnson?
I suspect there is more to come. Perhaps an avalanche. There is further news of another 'illegal' party thrown by Gavin Williamson at the Department of Education. Just as somebody leaked the video of the press conference, there may be footage of either party, or other lockdown incidents.
Who benefits? Sunak or Gove?
As for a beneficiary, fingers will doubtless be pointed at Rishi Sunak - 3.55 favourite to be Next Conservative Leader. On one level, that makes sense. Sunak could really do with moving on from being Chancellor before tax rises hit in April. He gained a fast start on rivals due to furlough but that advantage is waning. I strongly suspect Sunak was chosen by Cummings and I note he was excluded from Cummings' criticisms.
On the other hand, Allegra Stratton is a close personal friend of the Chancellor and wife to his best man, the Sun/Spectator political journalist James Forsyth. Not an obvious person to throw under a bus for Sunak's benefit although it might explain why Johnson made her a scapegoat.
So could this be a different rival, trying to destabilise Team Sunak with the same weapon? Michael Gove also has strong ties to Cummings and, amid a crisis following the PM's resignation, would be well-placed as at least a stop-gap replacement. Gove is an 8.07/1 chance.
Lib Dems now favourites for North Shropshire
Whether more revelations, (or knives), materialise, there is a more conventional means of tipping Johnson's premiership over the edge next week. Money has poured in today for the Lib Dems to win the North Shropshire by-election. They're now favourites at 1.910/11 to pull off an extraordinary upset.
I will preview that race in the days ahead and am still weighing this up. The odds are incredibly short given the task required to overhaul an enormous Tory majority here but the public mood, and even national polls appear to be turning badly against the government.
For now, though, I'd rather back an early exit. If you've followed all my previous bets on this, your position may be too exposed to pile in yet again. I will say, however, that the 2.26/5 about a 2022 exit looks solid. Johnson is in freefall and the government can't afford him to be in post next Christmas.
Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.
Bet on Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party here
North Shropshire By-Election
Johnson to be Leader at Tory Conference?
Year of Boris Johnson's Exit?
Boris Johnson Exit - Tri-Monthly
Next Conservative Leader
Prime Minister after Boris Johnson