It was Boris who won the biggest cheer last night

The closing ceremony again demonstrated the Mayor's unrivalled popularity.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising given the paucity of talent on display (we wanted Glastonbury, they gave us the V Festival), but it's still notable that it was Boris Johnson, rather than any of the performers, who received the biggest cheer at last night's Olympics closing ceremony. The Games began with thousands chanting "Boris! Boris!" in Hyde Park, they ended with them roaring at the mere mention of his name in Stratford. It's hard to think of any other politician who could enjoy such a reception because, put simply, there isn't one.

Some will argue that this reflects the executive weakness of the Mayor's office. He's not a leader, he's a mascot. But Ken Livingstone never enjoyed such adoration and no alternative Labour (David Lammy?) or Conservative Mayor (Seb Coe?) would. The result is that Boris is now spoken of as a potential prime minister by both the left and the right, and viewed as an increasing threat by Labour.

Over the same period, for the first time since David Cameron became Prime Minister, conservative commentators have begun to question whether he will last until the election. He will, of course, but the mere posing of the question, just two years into his premiership, is an indictment of his leadership. Unsurprisingly, then, Cameron is increasingly unsettled by the Tories' prince across the Thames. In his final comments before he departed for his Mediterranean holiday, he pointedly noted that Boris had "some huge challenges to meet across the capital in his second term". Elsewhere, he stated: "I’m delighted that my party has so many big hitters. I’ve got the opposite of tall poppy syndrome." But even if that were true (with the possible exception of Ken Clarke, one searches in vain for a "big hitter" on the frontbench), Cameron would be forced to concede that there is no bigger hitter than Boris.

The danger for the Mayor, perhaps, is that he has peaked too soon. Will his brand of bonhomie be tired by 2015? I suspect not, and the Olympics will be remembered as the moment that the Tories (to their joy) and Labour (to its terror) realised as much.

The Olympic Flag is handed from Mayor of London, Boris Johnson to IOC President Jacques Rogge. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war