Next Prime Minister Betting: Is Rishi Sunak the next PM or dodgy early favourite?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak
Is Rishi Sunak a PM-in-waiting?

"The Chancellor is the most public job besides PM...Just as giving away free money can be a vote-winner today, claiming it back in taxes tomorrow could be a vote-loser."

Many believe Rishi Sunak is the coming man - destined to succeed Boris Johnson. Examining the betting, Paul Krishnamurty warns against forming early conclusions...

British politics remains completely dominated by the Conservative Party. After a decade in office, increasing their vote share with each election, they continually trounce Labour in the polls.

This may not therefore seem like an obvious time to be discussing a change of leadership. Boris Johnson has been PM for less than two years. Betfair's market regarding the year he will leave office rates 2021 a mere 14% chance at odds of 7.613/2 and 57% likely to be 2024 or beyond.

Sunak red-hot favourite to succeed Johnson

Nevertheless, British politics wouldn't feel normal, were we not discussing the race for Next Conservative Leader. This particular market's place in betting folklore, plus their MPs' propensity to stab sitting leaders in the back, make it an inevitable, constant source of speculation.

There is usually a firm, early favourite and the latest renewal is no exception. Rishi Sunak is the only candidate at single-figure odds, rated 28% likely at odds of 3.55/2. This follows a Budget that was, initially at least, well received.

Sunak's electoral qualities are obvious. He's the most telegenic and articulate among senior Cabinet ministers, by far. He's cultivated a brand that cuts across the conventional ideological divide, managing to not appear 'political'. I base that assessment from canvassing unscientific lay opinion, at a time when millions were watching the daily Covid news conference.

Covid helped create Sunak's unique brand

The circumstances played no small part in making him. The furlough scheme was political gold. At a time when people were likelier than ever to listen to politicians, when most Cabinet colleagues were imposing restrictions, the Chancellor was giving away free money.

That buys a lot of time and forgiveness. While the government took several blows over its Covid management, Sunak has emerged largely unscathed. Even if some of his decisions were heavily criticised - pushing to come out of lockdown earlier, Eat Out to Help Out - there's little to suggest it cut through with voters.

All that leads many to believe he is the coming man. Somebody whom ambitious colleagues and access-seeking journalists would be advised to get behind. The new BBC Chair Richard Sharp is Sunak's former boss, and donated 400K to the Conservative Party. A slick PR campaign is already underway. 'Rishi' is the new 'Boris'.

Don't expect a swift, or bloodless, succession

So a smooth, friendly handover of power will take place at a time of Johnson's choosing? Dream on. No way can such predictions be made with certainty for a contest that could be several years away.

Whenever it takes place, there will be a leadership contest. There will be negative stories planted by rivals in the media. There will be scrutiny of Sunak's record as Chancellor.

Therein lies the peril. The Chancellor is the most public job besides PM. Voters form an impression to an extent that rarely applies to other government roles. And just as giving away free money can be a vote-winner today, claiming it back in taxes tomorrow, or denying NHS workers a pay rise, could be a vote-loser.

Favourites have a poor long-term record

There are parallels to be drawn with George Osborne. Six years ago, he was in the process engineering a Tory majority, based on his economic messaging. After that election, he was 3.02/1 favourite to succeed David Cameron. Within months, his reputation was crumbling after cutting working tax credits and then the EU referendum put him at odds with the Tory faithful. Events took their toll.

In fact, Osborne was merely the latest in a long line of beaten favourites. Besides Boris Johnson in 2019, every Tory front-runner dating back to the Sixties went on to lose.

Next PM is a better market to oppose Sunak

Note too, there are two co-related markets as Next Prime Minister is also available. If you think Johnson will run again next time, or that he'll definitely win, much higher odds are available about many candidates. For example, I've been backing Liz Truss at around 32.031/1 here rather than 15.014/1 for Next Tory Leader.

In contrast, Sunak is incredibly short in the PM market. Here of course, we can lay candidates from other parties too. Most obviously Keir Starmer at 5.49/2. Combined, the pair can be laid around 2.26/5. That is way too short, especially with Starmer looking ever less likely to ever be a Labour PM. My advice is to lay them both now. As the market goes on, that won't prove an expensive position.

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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