Boris the Gambler took a punt on his future and it paid off – but it’s heads-we-lose for the rest of us

I could have written an alternative column myself, examining the psychological state of anyone willing to advance his own future by betting his country’s on what he knew to be a wickedly dangerous wager. But I am using hindsight there

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With apologies to poker fans for the unwanted tutorial, any Texas Hold ’Em virgins should know that the phrase “coin flip” refers to two competing hands with the almost identical chance of winning.

If you have bet with a pair of sevens, and you reckon the rival who has raised you all-in holds AK suited, the odds of either hand winning once all the cards are dealt are so close to 50-50 that you may as well decide by flipping a coin. A small stakes online player wouldn’t think twice about calling that bet, knowing that over time the law of averages will balance out the luck.

But what of a one-off bet for the future of an entire country? If the stakes were so incalculably high, would you insouciantly leave it to heads-or-tails?

In February, it seems that Boris Johnson did just that, metaphorically and perhaps literally. We sorta-knew that back then, when a resolutely undenied rumour emerged that he had written two Daily Telegraph columns – one in favour of Brexit, the other for Remain – before deciding which would fill his weekly slot.

But sorta-knowing isn’t knowing. The US sorta-knew Donald Trump was a mesmerisingly disgusting, pustulant Neanderthal grotesque. Only when the “pussy-grabbing” video went public did America know, which is when any lingering chance of him reaching the White House evaporated.

With Boris, we now know we sorta-knew because the Sunday Times has published the Remain column he tragically rejected in February. I say tragically because had it appeared (had he jumped off the referendum fence in the other direction) it’s inconceivable we would be blindly stumbling towards a Brexit hard enough to bash the brains out on impact.

So imagine the now Foreign Secretary at his Islington desk one winter’s Sunday lunchtime. He is sucking a pencil in contemplation while staring at his desktop’s split screen, a Leave column on the right and Remain on the left.

We read the former column eight months ago, when Boris decided to go outlaw and make Michael Gove the Butch to his Sundance Kid. In this tour de force, he progressed smoothly from foreseeing “nothing necessarily anti-European or xenophobic in wanting to vote Leave” to citing immigration as an especially enraging issue.

As for the newly unearthed Stay column, here he reluctantly concluded that the risk of leaving was too great. “There are some big questions the ‘out’ side need to answer,” he wrote, citing “how big” the economic earthquake would be; whether the aftershock would drive Scotland to independence; and why we would want “to turn our back” on a single market “on our doorstep”. Describing David Cameron’s Brussels renegotiation deal as “a dud”, he finished with “I am going to muffle my disappointment and back the Prime Minister.”

Did those two closing words decide him, tantalisingly staring back at him and impishly whispering “Strike me pink, you could be PM in a few months if you push all your chips in now. You could end up a busted flush, of course. But if the cards fall right…”?

At the time, I wrote a column admiring his gambler’s spirit. Whether through reckless impatience or bravado, he had bet his career on a long shot, and that takes balls. In the event, he didn’t win the title but he did land the knockout punch. He needed to shift only two per cent to Leave to make the difference, and polling suggested he had the power to move about a tenth of the electorate.

At the time, I could have written an alternative column myself, examining the psychological state of anyone willing to advance his own future by betting his country’s on what he knew to be a wickedly dangerous wager.

But I am using hindsight there. Admiring Boris’ gambling cojones was easy back then, when Remain looked a dead cert. It’s not so easy today, with the pound in freefall, Marmite addicts roaming Spars across the land for dwindling stocks, Cabinet Brexiteers palpably paralysed by their cluelessness and God knows what horrors waiting outside the single market.

Boris Johnson: Pro-EU article written before he backed Brexit

If Boris is equally vulnerable to the siren song of hindsight, does he regret his choice of column now? The other night, I caught Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign secretary, smiling mischievously when CNN’s Christiane Ananpour mentioned him, albeit with more restraint than the US State Department spokesman who grinned maniacally on learning of Boris’ appointment in July. Whatever their differences over Syria, one foreign policy area on which the US and Russia are in perfect accord is that Boris Johnson is a joke.

And the joke that Britain’s fate turned on a coin toss is on us. Picture him again as he swivels in that chair, eyes flicking between the adjacent emails addressed to, as his wife Marina yells “For God’s sake, Boris, the gravy’s congealing.”

One last look to the left, one to the right. He reaches into a drawer for a commemorative 50p with all the EU member states represented on the tail side by stars. 

“All right, darling, I’ll be there in a moment,” he trills as it spirals through the air. It lands in a palm, and he turns it on to a wrist. He nervously looks down, and looking nervelessly up at him is the Queen. He sends the column on the right, and shuffles off for roast lamb.

Somehow, that coin flip won him his grand job, if not the grander one he wants and may yet get. For the rest of us, you may agree, it was the apotheosis of heads-we-lose.