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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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