'He wanted this more than anything in the world'

The Dream
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The Independent Online

Whichever way it went, we were bound to get a show of teeth.

Whichever way it went, we were bound to get a show of teeth.

Either Sir Richard Branson won the bid to run the lottery at his second time of trying - and the trademark hairy grin with which he pulls his enormously disparate enterprises into a single brand would be spread over every front page. Or he wouldn't - and Desert Orchid, almost equally long in the tooth now, would be peeling back its top lip in front of Sir Richard's London home in an attempt to distract the assembled news teams.

Quite why a superannuated racehorse was thought appropriate as mascot for a failed lottery bid wasn't clear. Perhaps Sir Richard planned to announce that he would now give up riding this particular hobby-horse and wanted a visual aid. But in the event Desert Orchid's services weren't required. In a turn of events that nobody would have risked a bet on, the Lottery Commission first declared a no-score draw and then announced that only one team would be allowed back on for extra time. Sir Richard couldn't quite say he had won yet, but it was difficult to see how he could lose.

At his house in Holland Park journalists filed along the hall, past the school photographs of his children, through the lime-green country-style kitchen and into the back garden, where a single bottle of champagne and apparently inexhaustable supplies of Virgin Cola were laid out to refresh them. The champagne was for Simon Burrage and John Jackson, chief executive and board member for the People's Lottery, but they didn't drink much of it as they explained what remained to be done before Sir Richard could finally claim victory.

The man himself, they explained, was on a small boat somewhere in the Caribbean, and would be back in London by Friday to begin discussions with the Lottery Commission. His reaction, according to Mr Burrage, had been cautiously pleased: "We've run the marathon", he said, "and we've got one more lap to go before we go through the winning post."

Quite why Sir Richard has trained so rigorously (and expensively) for this event is less easy to explain. "Richard wants to win the lottery more than anything else in the world," a Virgin source confirmed yesterday. For most people this wish is simply about life-changing quantities of cash, but even a rollover prize would scarcely register with Sir Richard, whose £2.4bn empire makes single-figure millions look like small change.

Cynics might point out that, if he ever did buy a lottery ticket himself, he would probably prove psychologically incapable of putting a cross in the "no publicity" box, but he has been at pains to detach Virgin companies from this bid in order to forestall accusations that he sees it as cost-free advertising for his businesses.

A sense of belated vindication would probably get closer to his motives. In the past he's claimed some credit for the lottery's very existence - pointing out that he raised the matter in a conversation with Margaret Thatcher in 1988 - and the sense of disappointment he felt when his last bid failed (there were reports that he shed tears when the result was announced) was aggravated by his fixed conviction that the worst men had won. His victory ina libel case, brought after he had made allegations of a bribery attempt by Guy Snowden, chairman of Camelot's partners G-Tech, will have both soothed and amplified his sense of injustice.

For him the 1.8p in the pound difference between what Camelot currently returns to good causes and what the People's Lottery pledges to is the difference between profiteering and public service, between an ethos of fat-cat salaries and one of selfless dispensation. (Whether his own consortium can actually match performance to promise is still to be seen of course: the phrase most in evidence at yesterday's press conference was "We believe ... a useful way of bridging the gap between projection and hard fact).

But it may be too that Sir Richard feels the need to refresh his single greatest operating asset - the public sense that he is a businessman apart. He is a man who loves to succeed noisily and fail very quietly - and the loss of the lottery bid last time round, not to mention continuing troubles with Virgin Trains, have recently offered him an experience of the exact opposite.

Virgin Air, for a long time a cash cow which helped nourish the runts of his vast corporate litter, is now under pressure too. In such circumstances Sir Richard almost certainly wants to put something on the historical balance sheet that isn't simply a matter of money or zany antics for press photographers. Lottery winners often say "It won't change me". Sir Richard is almost certainly hoping that his winultimately will.