Besieged by friend and foe, Boris Johnson had been facing a nightmare Christmas.
His doom-laden critics were delightedly forecasting a disastrous No Deal Brexit, record deaths from Covid and the inevitability that he would have to break his promise of giving families five days of relief over Christmas from pandemic restrictions.
Indeed, for those who, for years, have damned Boris as a lazy liar and a buffoon ill-suited to focus on detail, the unending crisis of the past weeks seemed to fit their prediction that Boris was leading Britain off a cliff.
Boris Johnson had been facing a nightmare Christmas. His doom-laden critics were delightedly forecasting a disastrous No Deal Brexit and record deaths from Covid
His dream of being the Sunshine King delivering endless good news had, it seemed, been shattered. Naysayers wagered that he would resign early in the New Year.
Yet Boris, throughout his life, has defied his critics. Every time an enemy licks their lips while predicting he’s finished, he’s overcome the odds and returned revitalised.
Writing his biography earlier this year, I found it fascinating to see how his outspoken foes had been repeatedly trounced.
Intelligent, crafty and ruthless, Boris has concealed his career-saving skills behind a smokescreen of self-deprecating humour and optimism.
Rarely does he allow his detractors to spot any flinch in a moment of weakness. Such camouflage is familiar to champion poker players.
The best players outwit their opponent by never revealing any anger – or, equally, any self-satisfied joy.
Those are the qualities of The Gambler – the title of my Boris biography.
The last-minute conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, on apparently better terms for Britain than the hapless Theresa May and Remainers foresaw, confirms that Boris, the unpredictable Gambler, outwitted impulsive rival players such as Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Angela Merkel, the colourless German leader.
Just like all his previous surprise victories – to become London’s Mayor, win the Brexit referendum, seize the Tory Party leadership and storm to an 80-seat Commons majority – Boris allowed himself a smile but no chortling.
Professional gamblers gather their chips politely, utter generous platitudes and silently look forward to luring the suckers into the next game.
Yet Boris, throughout his life, has defied his critics. Every time an enemy licks their lips while predicting he’s finished, he’s overcome the odds and returned revitalised
Of course, out of the spotlight, the hero’s behaviour was very different. Downing Street colleagues have witnessed The Gambler’s moods.
Veering from cheery optimism to manic depression, the real Boris has been exposed to unexpected realities that have confounded every new Prime Minister.
Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair suffered a big drop in popularity at the end of their first year in No 10 – albeit even bigger than Boris’s.
And neither faced the simultaneous Herculean challenges of Brexit and Covid.
Nevertheless, Boris was slower than his predecessors out of the block. As a loner, he arrived in Downing Street with few qualified advisers and just a handful of associates. Also, no genuine friends.
The two key men – Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain – were vital during last year’s victorious Election campaign, but then infected Downing Street with poison.
Foolishly, during the first months of his post-General Election premiership, Boris did not stack the odds in his favour.
Holidaying in the Caribbean sun last January, he smugly told his host: ‘Life is perfect.’ Soon after, Covid brought the world crashing down.
Buffeted by unforeseen disasters and relying on the advice of improvising scientists, Boris refused to abandon his winning demeanour.
Rather than preach doom and gloom, he spouted unsubstantiated optimism to reassure Britons – and maintain his popularity.
As the nation’s confidence drained away, Boris’s inconsistency inevitably fuelled accusations of him betraying the nation’s trust.
Repeatedly, his promises were exposed as phoney.
In truth, some of those promises were not lies but just impulsive expressions of hopefulness and a wordsmith’s hyperbole.
Eventually, Britain did develop the world’s biggest ‘test and trace’ scheme and now appears on course to be the first European nation to deliver mass vaccinations.
And contrary to the BBC’s constant damnation of Boris’s reaction to Covid, while praising the response in Germany and Sweden, it now seems that the BBC’s judgment was characteristically partisan.
In the second wave of the virus, death rates in Germany and Sweden have been soaring.
Ever The Gambler, though, Boris seems congenitally unable to shake off the temptation to utter optimistic predictions.
Another Achilles heel is his cronyism, which begs questions about his integrity.
Justifiably frustrated by intransigent or incompetent civil servants, he has rightly appointed trusted Tories to key positions.
Some, such as Dido Harding, put in charge of ‘test and trace’, have proved vulnerable.
Another Tory MP’s wife, Kate Bingham, as vaccines tsar, though, has played aces, along with several others.
As for some of the PM’s nominations to peerages, frankly, they stink. Although Boris’s cronyism is as nothing compared with Tony Blair, who was questioned three times in Downing Street by Scotland Yard detectives during their investigation of the Labour Party’s so-called ‘sale of peerages’.
And some of Harold Wilson’s peers were jailed.
The fact is that a brazen Boris, with just under four years until the next General Election, doesn’t care a fig about his Westminster critics.
His gamble is that few Tory voters will remember in 2024. According to psychologists, all gamblers eventually lose. But that is not true.
In my biographies of powerful men, I have chronicled how Bernie Ecclestone, Jimmy Goldsmith, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell and Richard Branson risked their fortunes on outlandish deals – and won.
That is the nature of successful tycoons: assessing the risk, judging their opponent, controlling the bank and making the bet.
Boris’s critics claim his gambles are different because he takes risks with other people’s money.
However, they forget that tycoons risk their shareholders’ and bankers’ money. It was by staying at the top of the greasy pole that vindicated those gamblers’ skill to judge the risk.
Over the past weeks, Boris Johnson has reduced his risks. To survive, he abruptly approved the resignations of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain.
Their replacement by competent traditionalists proved that The Gambler had learnt his lessons.
The Boris Rollercoaster is now slowing down. By the spring, most of Britain’s vulnerable population will have been vaccinated.
Life should start to return to normal, despite the country’s gargantuan debts. With low interest rates and the right leadership from Downing Street, Britons could seize their new liberty and revive the country’s fortunes.
Sports fans will pack back into stadia, the young will crowd into clubs and rock concerts, children will gleefully return to school, actors and musicians will entertain us in theatres and concert halls, and entrepreneurs will reopen pubs and restaurants.
The darkness will be over. And The Gambler will stretch out and take his winnings.
l Tom Bower is author of Boris Johnson, The Gambler