Six famous leadership contest upsets

This piece first appeared at on 1st April 2020

For weeks, the markets for Next Labour Leader and Next Deputy Labour Leader have been stagnant. It is assumed that Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner will win, as respective odds of [1.02] and [1.01] illustrate. I’ve no reason to expect an upset but were the market to be proved wrong, it would not be the first time by any means.

2001: IDS stuns his more famous rivals

The first big leadership contest after Betfair was invented produced a remarkable betting heat that remains fresh in the memory. Michael Portillo – then Shadow Chancellor and long tipped as a future Conservative Party leader – started a strong odds-on favourite. His principal opponent was assumed to be another Tory ‘Big Beast‘ – former Chancellor Ken Clarke.

Both had big press endorsements and a vast name recognition advantage over their three opponents. Despite securing plenty of endorsements from Eurosceptic MPs, punters and (critically) headline writers took little notice of Iain Duncan Smith – who had been rising up the party ranks in the Shadow Cabinet. Even as the field whittled to three, IDS remained a [30.0] chance.

Then in the final round of voting among MPs, amid rumours of tactical skullduggery, Portillo was eliminated. Now it was down to the party’s largely Eurosceptic members to choose. Clarke started a strong favourite around [1.4] but gradually the market wised up to the fact the grassroots preferred ideological purity to perceived electability. IDS would go on to win by a whopping 61-39 margin.

2007: Harman edges Johnson in photo finish

Given how late we are into the current race, Labour’s 2007 deputy contest probably offers the best hope for those cheering an upset. On the day the result was announced, Alan Johnson was a [1.1] chance to succeed John Prescott. There was very little indication of the drama about to unfold.

Harman had started out as the outsider of six, trading around [16.0]. She only finished third in the opening round of the Alternative Vote process – Johnson led after rounds two, three and four. However, she overtook him at the death, winning by a minute 50.4 – 49.6% margin.

2008: McCain defies cash shortfall in GOP race

John McCain had been touted for at least a decade as a likely nominee for the Republicans. He lost to George W Bush in 2000 and started out as second favourite behind Rudy Giuliani when the party sought his successor in 2008.

It didn’t start well. Struggling to raise cash to compete with the likes of Giuliani and Mitt Romney, McCain sacked several advisors the previous autumn and was rumoured to be quitting. Fred Thompson also usurped him in the betting and the Arizona Senator drifted out to around [25.0].

The turning point came in Iowa. Although never expected to win this socially conservative state, McCain performed respectably in fourth, way better than Giuliani, while Romney’s defeat to Mike Huckabee damaged his credibility. One week later, McCain won New Hampshire and once the war hero had exorcised a ghost from his 2000 defeat in South Carolina, the result was never in doubt.

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