In wager-happy Britain, 2010 becoming the year of the political bet

By Karla Adam
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

LONDON -- Midway through last week's second British election debate, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, made a little joke about airplanes flying only when "there isn't too much volcanic ash around."

And somewhere around wager-happy Britain, cheers erupted from the 56 people who had placed bets that Clegg would be the first of the three debaters to refer to the Icelandic volcano that paralyzed European travel this month.

The British will bet on anything. Online betting sites are growing fast, and at least 9,000 storefront betting parlors, in virtually every neighborhood in British cities and towns, are always busy. Businessmen in pinstripes and women in soccer jerseys wander in to place bets -- mainly on sports, but also on novelty items such as the weather, the identity of the next Bond girl and which country will make first contact with extraterrestrials.

Politics is always a draw, but a national election that is suddenly and unexpectedly a rollicking, galloping political horse race is drawing bets like never before. Bookmakers expect they will handle $40 million worth of bets during the one-month campaign leading up to the May 6 general election -- more than double the amount in any previous British election.

In addition to betting on random utterances, such as which candidate will say "rubbish" first, Britons are wagering on what color tie Prime Minister Gordon Brown will wear to the debates and whether Conservative Party leader David Cameron will faint during the televised clashes.

The question of who would mention the volcano first attracted 150 bets, including the 56 people who wagered on Clegg. Darren Haines, spokesman for the bookmaker Paddy Power, said his company paid out about $715 in winnings to those who bet on Clegg, who had been the long shot at 9-to-4 odds, behind Brown, the favorite at 11 to 10, and Cameron, at 2 to 1.

The biggest money is still in sports; bookmakers said more than $600 million was wagered on the Grand National horse race this month, and a competitive Premier League soccer match attracts $15 million or more in bets. But 2010, a year when the political powers in Washington are denouncing "betting" in financial markets by Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms, is emerging as the year of the political bet in Britain.

"The interest [in political betting] is just building and building, and the final week will be absolutely colossal -- assuming it's still touch-and-go. That's what drives this: It's the uncertain outcome," said Mike Smithson, editor of PoliticalBetting.com.

Until recently, the British election seemed like a familiar contest between Labor and the Conservatives. But then Clegg turned everything upside down with a surprisingly strong showing in the first televised debate two weeks ago, changing the calculations of political scientists and the calculators of bookies.

Before the first debate, Paddy Power gave Clegg's Liberal Democrats 200-to-1 odds on winning the most seats in the House of Commons, which is double the odds it is giving on the discovery of alien life before 2013. After the debate, the party's odds were slashed to 9 to 1.

Some people think "Cleggmania" is a passing fad, including Jonathan Roper, 22, a shop assistant from Birmingham, who recently plunked down five pounds at a betting shop near Westminster. "The debates don't give the full picture. Ultimately people will play it safe and stick with what they got," he said, explaining why he was betting on Labor.

Although the big cash is on who will win the election, British betting companies encourage bettors to dream up their own wagers, like the man who requested odds on Cameron passing out during the debate. "He was probably the air-conditioning man," said Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for William Hill, which offered the man 250-to-1 odds.

With Thursday's third debate approaching, Sharpe said there were no limitations on the bets the industry would accept. It is giving 50-to-1 odds that one of the leaders will say, "I love this country," and even 10-to-1 odds that someone will mention Elvis.

"If you're willing to give us money, you can bet on almost anything," Sharpe said. "That's what we're in business for."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company