As sophisticated voters in a mature democracy, proud inheritors of the mother of parliaments, there is nothing the British people enjoy more than a flutter on politics. The Tory leadership stakes are proving a good market, with prices changing from hour to hour. Hardly surprising, given that John Major's decision to resign as leader of the Conservative Party was described by all the media as a colossal gamble.

Currently there are two kinds of political bet on offer. One is a long- range bet, on the number of seats each party wins at the general election. Earlier this week IG Index, which is one of the leading spread betting firms, was quoting the total of Tory seats at the next general election as 252-260 and Labour at 342-350.

This form of betting, which treats the wager like a share price, means that if you think the Tories will win more than 260 seats, you bet the upside. For every seat over 260, the punter wins that multiple of his stake. A Tory total of 295 seats, for example, at pounds 10 a point, would win pounds 350. If the punter judges the Tories will fall below the quote of 252, he can sell the Tories in a similar way.

Easy-peasy. The only snag is, if the punter's prediction goes wildly wrong, he stands to lose pounds 10 a point for every seat he misses by. So if you sell the Tories at 252, and they actually win 302 seats, it will cost you 50 times your stake.

The short-term bet which has been much in demand this week is on the running of that good trier but unpredictable performer, John Major. Bookmakers William Hill took a lot of money at 6-4 last weekend on Major leading the Conservatives at the next election. Surprise entry John Redwood opened at 25-1, but his price was soon cut to tens, as money poured in. Students of form may recall that John Major was himself a 25-1 outsider when he entered the 1990 leadership stakes. IG Index which opened a book on the current contest within hours of the declaration of runners, quoted Major at 220-230 votes and Redwood at 50-60, but as money came in for Redwood this was rapidly adjusted to 194-204 and 75-85. Obviously the number of abstentions is crucial. The figures quoted by IG imply a total of 50.

Perhaps the strangest bet William Hill has outstanding is from a Scottish punter who has wagered pounds 2 at 5,000 -1 that a comet will hit the earth in the year 2116. This canny player has decided not to pay betting tax in advance, on the grounds that a more enlightened government will, by that date, have abolished the tax, so his heirs who inherit the bet won't have to pay it. The government of the time may also have abolished the pound by then. Who knows?