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Our MPs can’t help but gamble Politics is a game of risk

Rishi Sunak's last gamble. (Credit: Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak's last gamble. (Credit: Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)


June 28, 2024   5 mins

“Are you two really the best we’ve got to be the next prime minister of our great country?”, asked Robert, during the final election leadership debate. As a Question Time audience intervention, it was a classic of the genre: knowing, barbed, bordering on the rude. It successfully elicited wry spasms of mirth from audience members, who like to nod along to this familiar tune.

In its oblique gesture towards a besieged and perhaps vanishing greatness, Robert’s question brought into play the usual unreflectively naïve assumptions about the uniquely inferior quality of today’s crop of politicians. This is simply a form of political exceptionalism about the present. It is an uncritical habit of thought that calls to mind a notional past in which politicians were upstanding, deft, civil, conservatively-dressed, models of probity. Consider that by some obviously relevant standards — intelligence, moral fitness, command of policy — they are the best pair of candidates we’ve been presented with for several electoral cycles: nothing special, perhaps, but then, it follows, nothing especially bad either. It bears pointing out that the last time the public was invited to vote, the choice was between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.

It must of course be admitted that for a workplace of some 650 people, the House of Commons does seem to give rise to more than its fair share of workplace indiscretions. Publicising pictures of your genitals and distributing your colleagues’ phone numbers to potential blackmailers; dipping into political donations to pay-off “bad people” and ending up chained to a radiator; browsing pornography on your phone inside the chamber House of Commons; offering to lobby parliament while being secretly filmed by undercover journalists. At times, the scandals operated according to a kind of nominative determinism for ease of recall: Pincher was the bottom grabber, Parish the profane one, and Bone  — upsettingly — the flasher.

As for Rishi Sunak, it is, of course, a bitter irony that his roll of the electoral dice has been skewed by the scandal of politicians making dodgy wagers against manifestly unfavourable odds. As it stands, five Conservative political figures, including two now-unendorsed parliamentary candidates, have come under investigation by the gambling watchdog for placing potentially illicit bets on the date of the election. It’s a squalid spectacle. The characters, nonentities; the motivations, base; the sums of money involved, comparatively paltry.

“It’s a squalid spectacle. The characters, nonentities; the motivations, base; the sums of money involved, comparatively paltry.”

But however hard it is to summon up enthusiastic moral condemnation, it is even harder still to feel anything close to surprise. That gambling is, apparently, rife at Westminster is probably in no small part because it calls on the same dispositions and skills as politics does.

If there is an underlying unity to the many and lurid transgressions of our outgoing cohort of parliamentarians, it is their near pathological inability to properly respond to risk. But, then, anyone who wins a seat in the house of commons is, more or less in virtue of that very fact, someone who fancies their chances against sometimes wildly unfavourable odds. Even for the well-qualified candidates, merely being selected by a local association is an often random, taxing and capricious process, a fact testified to by the gleeful operation of Twitter accounts such as “Has Sebastian Payne got a safe seat yet?”.

It is an important fact about MPs that each and every one is a person who decided at some point to channel vast resources of time and energy, and very often their own money, into a process that would at some point or other see them being humiliatingly rejected in a regional leisure centre at 4am. It comes to them all, eventually. And for the time that they are in post, the attraction of thinking of much political action on the model of a gamble rarely dissipates. “ACHAB”, the Tory diarist Alan Clark used to console himself when some scheme or political wheeze seemed to be heading for the rocks: “Anything Can Happen at Backgammon”. The phrase was one exported from the gambling room at Clark’s club, Brooks’s “where games can swing at a late stage on an unpredictable run of the dice”.

Nor would it be sensible to blame politicians too much for acting on the basis of instincts that might share much of the phenomenology of the often unreliable twinges of a gambler’s gut instinct. Sometimes there may be little else to go on. Such instincts, under the right circumstances, may even yield a distinctive kind of political knowledge. It is a well-attested insight of psychology that gut reactions, and fast and frugal heuristics, can provide a reliable basis for knowledge. An expert political operators may, for instance, instantly read a room, or effortlessly notice the most powerful person in it; in the subtle cues of a colleague’s facial expression they might detect weakness or the prospect of betrayal; like a master chess player taking in a board at a glance, they might instantly see a position as a “win” for one side rather than the other.

The most effective political operators tend to be those who have a lot of such intuitive knowledge. Whether they do or not is usually the sort of thing that one can assess only on the basis of demonstrated performance. Rishi Sunak, by most people’s lights, has very little.

More challenging than the thought that our politicians might be gamblers by disposition — not all of them cut from Clark’s cloth, admittedly — is the knowledge that we actually want them to be rather good at it. Risk-taking is constitutive, rather than incidental, to political life. Political realists, going back to Machiavelli, have emphasised the intelligent management of luck as being key to effective political leadership. A level of daring that might be inappropriate in more sheltered walks of life can be indispensable to successful political action, aided by the absence of any clearly defined or properly enforceable code of professional ethics in political life — the non-existence of which so distresses Question Time audiences.

Calls to clean up politics, to drain the swamp and restore a sense of decency to public life are leitmotifs of politics of the populist Right, Left and Centre. That such partisan charges can be credibly made from all sides suggests that a general phenomenon is being misdiagnosed as something more parochial. There hasn’t been a sudden and local collapse in political standards; this critique is insensitive to characteristics of politicians that are long-lived, widespread, and less contingent to the effective operation of political life than might first appear.

Even if panic about the rapid decline of public morals is unwarranted, the widespread belief that such decline is taking place creates a problem, and ironically, an occasion for opportunism. Public trust in politicians has reached an all-time low. Ruthlessly indulging the exceptionalist view in the final leadership debate, Sir Keir Starmer declared with uncanny historical precision that “over the last 14 years politics has become too much about self-entitlement”. Instead, he suggests that Labour will restore a lost ethic of public service to political life. But the suggestion that one can remould the characters of politicians by moral fiat is one that fails to take seriously the structural features that virtually guarantee these traits are selected for. Perhaps Keir Starmer knows that. As Machiavelli would no doubt advise, making a convincing pitch for the restoration of public trust need have nothing to do with actually acknowledging the truth.


John Maier is an UnHerd columnist and PhD student at the University of Oxford

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
27 days ago

For Christ’s sake, if you’re going to be corrupt, at least have the decency to be corrupt on a grand, awe-inspiring scale. The people often forgive a flimflam man of breath-taking audacity, especially if he’s charismatic; they never forgive some petty little chiseler snaking a few cents from the church collection plate.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
27 days ago

Indeed, that is why Nicola Sturgeon only elicited derision.

0 01
0 01
27 days ago

I know what you mean, the current crop of leaders don’t have to productive type of narcissism of the leaders of ages past. The type that despite being self-serving, would not just benefit them but people who they ruled over, such as enriching the realm to enrich ones self, making it more powerful and prestigious and thus gaining both of the stated previously, or gaining renown by being a good leader and thus wining honor thus authority in the process. Our current leaders are general ignorant about the world, they narrow educated and conformist to the point of being unimaginative, and general incurious about anything that dose not effect them. The most of all lack any character and nothing but self-centered time servers who don’t think much about there action effect thing long term.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
26 days ago

” … man of breath-taking audacity, especially if he’s charismatic …” Castro comes to mind.

J Bryant
J Bryant
27 days ago

This was an excellent and insightful essay, imo. Politicians are selected, intentionally or not, to possess certain character traits, such as impulsiveness and self-regard bordering on narcissism. These traits really haven’t changed much over the ages, except perhaps social media has enhanced the selection pressures.
I’m not actually sure why decent, principled people go into politics anymore. Their lives will be researched back to the moment of conception, and every event interpreted in the most unfavorable light.

AC Harper
AC Harper
27 days ago

Perhaps the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal of 2009 is finally coming home to roost (in its duck house)?
It has been my observation that some peccadilloes are more memorable than others. Sexual shenanigans and the odd bet are often seen as trivial but the stink of widespread corruption lingers on.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
27 days ago

A level of daring that might be inappropriate in more sheltered walks of life can be indispensable to successful political action, aided by the absence of any clearly defined or properly enforceable code of professional ethics in political life”

Unless i’m mistaken, and the author isn’t excoriating about Boris Johnson earlier in the article, this insight might in recent decades have only been applied to Johnson during the period July-December 2019.
Of course, we all know how that ended up, but his actions in getting Brexit across the line just can’t be dismissed in a one-liner about the choice between him and Corbyn. If i am mistaken, and that’s the point the author is making, it could have been made more clearly.

David Smy
David Smy
27 days ago

But this just illustrates why we are in such a mess. Parliament is being populated by chancers who go into into politics as a means of stepping into something more lucrative. When you look at the leaders of the, currently, two main stream parties, whilst one could not say they lacked intellect, that intellect is very narrow. They are people of very limited experience of broader life, as are so many in politics. Too many SPADS, too many rent a mouth social justice keyboard warriors. Blair, with his surfeit of lawyers, has effectively codified our law, giving no scope for laws passed to be implemented. It seems that every law passed by Parliament faces legal challenge. Great for lawyer’s bank balances but not good for the rest of us. We have become a rights based society without the balance of responsibilities. We are about to elect a human rights lawyer as our PM. I fear the consequences.

Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
27 days ago
Reply to  David Smy

True, while everyone wants to live in a law abiding society, it seems a bit off balance – lockdown, immigration, planning, net zero… all tangled in a web of laws.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
27 days ago

Thinking of the rabble of hysterical remainers & Corbynites whose best idea of a cutting insult against Boris Johnson was that he was a ‘liar’ —
it was as if they’d never observed any other politician, or example of political manoevering, in their entire lives

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
26 days ago

This article does miss the point. Those politicians being investigated by the police did not gamble. They knew when the election was being held. Had the bookies known the same, they would not have taken the bets.
Some of the politicians did bet legitimately but then do does a large proportion of the population. Most decisions in life are bets.

Will K
Will K
24 days ago

Reading from overseas, I don’t understand the problem with anyone making a bet. Is betting now illegal in the UK? If I was up for election, I’d definitely place a bet against myself: then if I’m not elected, I’d have the consolation of winning some cash. I wonder if US politicians have considered this wheeze. Lose and win big.

Will K
Will K
24 days ago

Corrupt? Life surely does have some element of chance. Is it illegal to be aware of that, to make decisions based on that awareness, or to accept benefits arising from chance?

Will K
Will K
24 days ago

Last time I was in Vegas, it seemed possible to bet on lots of sports games, or even play cards for money. Is that evil stuff illegal in the UK? In the US, the Govt takes its cut, and then stamps it “ok”.