Alan Watkins: What chance, the bookies' favourite?

The clever money may be on Lord Mandelson for next Labour leader, but political betting invariably gets it wrong
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The Independent Online

This week it is Mr Alistair Darling's turn to have a twirl on the floor. The colour-writers (as they used to be called in the trade) have taken the week off, the judges have retired from the competition, taking their notebooks with them, and once again peace of a kind has come down on Westminster.

As a matter of fact, nothing much has happened. Lots of journalists have written about Lord Mandelson. At least one of them, maybe more, has written about his stylishness and impression of comfortable ease. The rest of his colleagues, we were given to understand, were by comparison a shabby and down-at-heel crew.

From Monday to Thursday (for I counted them all) Lord Mandelson made daily appearances on television. I think his appearances would have been described in the men's magazine as smart-casual. In politics, as in life itself, nothing succeeds like the imminent presence of a television camera.

And what did Lord Mandelson tell us? Nothing very much. He admitted that the four people who had "rescued" Rover cars, had been, so to speak, taken for a ride by his colleagues and by the taxpayers but, no, they were not going to be prosecuted. Lord Mandelson's present stock-in-trade is the purveying of endless plausibility, which will come to an end, presumably, with the general election.

For the moment, the bookmakers' favourite is Lord Mandelson. Never mind the tedious constitutional stuff which I went into last week and which might deprive him of the chance to contest the Labour leadership, owing to his acceptance of a life peerage. In the excitement of the moment, I omitted to mention specifically a possible amendment to Mr Jack Straw's constitutional reform Bill. This might or might not be passed.

I do not think Lord Mandelson is holding his breath. My impression is that, with the passing of the years, and the ups and downs of life, he has become less excitable in his ways. Certainly, the bookies do not care one way or another about the vagaries of the law about life peerages. I read in the papers that in the last week they have taken more money on Lord Mandelson than they have on all the other candidates combined. This only goes to show the perils of political betting. When they open their books, weeks or even months in advance, they are almost invariably wrong.

They tend to become more realistic in the odds the closer the contest approaches. With many political contests, they are still wrong. Two examples will suffice.

In 1980, I backed Michael Foot at 14-1 to lead the Labour Party. There were three other candidates, of whom Denis Healey was the clear favourite. As the party election approached, Mr Foot's odds shortened, but Lord Healey remained the favourite.

In 2007, the bookies made Mr Hilary Benn the favourite to become deputy leader in succession to Mr John Prescott. I think they thought Hilary was Mr Tony Benn's daughter. They had got the wrong daughter. But, after some weeks, they bestowed their favour on Mr Alan Johnson. After some time, Mr Johnson became the choice of the worldly wise, as Lord Healey had been in 1980.

I stuck to my own eccentric choice, Ms Harriet Harman, not because she had any earth-shaking qualities but because I thought she would win. I thought she would win because the constituency section, a third of the electoral college, wanted a woman, and somebody who could plausibly be paraded before them as "left wing".

Exactly the same case can be made for the successful candidate to take over from Mr Gordon Brown in 2010 or 2011. Indeed, Ms Harman has already been polishing up her act. She is like an old-style comedienne on the music hall: "Oh men. Don't you tell me about men. The other day, only yesterday, no, I tell a lie ..." and so it goes on.

She seems to have a great public out there, in particular among the Fleet Street harpies, whose columns (I speak of the period before Lord Mandelson took over) were running about four to one in Ms Harman's favour. Good for her! What are a few ill-natured parliamentary sketchwriters when she can summon the hosts at her command?

My feeling – it is no more than that – is that Mr Brown will take his leave after the election. In 1980, James Callaghan was grumbled about for staying for as long as he did from May 1979 to November 1980 – instead of resigning straight away.

In 1997, John Major took another course. He went off at once, to watch a game at the Oval cricket ground. Several of his former colleagues said to me afterwards that Sir John had behaved selfishly, irresponsibly, taking himself off to the cricket instead of helping to resolve the difficulties of his great party. They did not use those precise words, but this is what they meant.

Sir John had had a rough time, almost as rough as Mr Brown's, and over five years. Little wonder if he wanted a rest at the Oval. Mr Brown has no such ready-made consolation. But there are jobs to be applied for and to get, with speeches, and meetings, and conferences, and getting into and out of aeroplanes.

And Lord Mandelson? My feeling (and again it is no more than that) is that he will return to the life he led in Brussels, or to a variation of it. He is now accepted as a model member of society. I once defended him – it was at the time of his first, not his second resignation – on the partial ground that he had falsified or, at any rate, had not told the exact truth in his mortgage application.

I once committed the same offence myself, if offence it was (I believe it was). In 1984, I was working for the Observer newspaper, and applied for a mortgage, naming my employer in the space provided. I knew perfectly well that I had a contract, and was not an employee at all, technically speaking. But in the past I had suffered endless trouble through applying for credit cards and the like and entering the box as "self-employed". The company providing the prospective benefit seemed to require the most exact information, testified by witnesses.

So I consulted my then editor, Mr Donald Trelford. He was – still is – a man of the world. He was perfectly willing for him, or rather, his paper, to be described as my employer. There were no further difficulties, not that there had been any in the beginning. A letter of confirmation duly arrived at the paper from the building society.

In different circumstances, Lord Mandelson had more trouble. But all that is now behind him. And yet, when I just wrote that he would return to the international life, I wonder. He seems to have a tick about Mr George Osborne. It was Mr Nat Rothschild who nearly caused Mr Osborne's career to collapse by retailing stories about Mr Brown from Lord Mandelson. Mr Osborne and Lord Mandelson may still be around in our politics for many years.