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A House fond of the odd flutter

THE LATE Ian Mikardo would never have given Charles Kennedy 50-1 odds on the Liberal Democrats winning two seats in last week's European elections.

The party's tally was always likely to be between one and five and the shrewd, veteran Labour MP rarely lost money.

For years, Mr Mikardo, who died a year ago, was the unofficial bookie of the House of Commons, combining hard-left politics with an entrepreneurial talent that would have been envied on any racetrack in Britain.

Political betting by politicians has been around for a long time. Despite the Liberal Democrats' roots in the Nonconformist movement which frowned on such things, the party and its Liberal predecessor have always had their share of gamblers. But the gambling has usually been conducted rather more discreetly than Mr Kennedy's pounds 50 wager last week on a poor result for the Liberal Democrats, which won him pounds 2,500 at William Hill's.

Mr Mikardo ran a book on almost anything - the Derby, elections to Labour's national executive or Tory leadership contests. He did well out of Tory loyalists when Margaret Thatcher defeated Edward Heath. He was so often right that political journalists used his odds to forecast what would happen. He once offered odds of 5,000-1 against Kenneth Clarke becoming Tory leader, which from Mr Mikardo's point of view might have looked safe but would be suicidally high now.

Mr Kennedy, 34, was saying nothing yesterday but it is understood that he will give his winnings to the party. Ironically, this could help to fund an election petition aimed at increasing the Liberal Democrats' European representation to three. Yesterday, the party announced legal moves to challenge the result in Devon and East Plymouth, which the Conservatives held by 700 votes while a fringe candidate standing as a Literal Democrat polled 10,203.

If the seat changes hands, it should not affect Mr Kennedy's winnings.

Traditionally, the House of Commons has always attracted those who like a flutter and those who advise others. Robin Cook, Labour's spokesman on trade and industry, writes a racing tips column for a Scottish newspaper.

He recently advised his readers: 'Having an occasional flutter on a race is fun if you write off your stake as the price of your entry into sharing the thrill of a truly- run race. Treat it as an investment in future income and you are on the road to heartbreak.'