Andrew Grice inside Westminster: Is Boris already the first big winner of these Games?

Ambitious Boris Johnson once joked to friends that he wanted to be 'king of the world'

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The Independent Online

The backdrop to the Olympics was not supposed to be like this. In 2010, after agreeing deep spending cuts, senior Cabinet ministers told me they hoped an economic "feel-good factor" would kick in with the Games. The deficit would be under control, the economy growing and the Coalition able to approach the second half of its five-year term with optimism. They even dared to dream about a tax-cutting reward for the nation before the 2015 election.

David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg did not imagine then that the Olympics would take place under such a dark economic cloud. This week's figures showing a further slide into a double-dip recession have only added to the "feel-bad factor".

Ministers hope the Games will provide a firebreak after the Government's miserable run since a disastrous Budget in March. You could see the relief on Mr Cameron's face as he greeted the crowds in Downing Street when the Olympic torch arrived. As usual, the PM looked the part. Again, he reminded me of Tony Blair when he greeted flag-waving well-wishers – in fact, bussed-in Labour supporters – outside No 10 after winning his 1997 landslide.

Mr Cameron will probably enjoy his respite from political hostilities over the next two weeks. Wisely, he reminds us that he still has "a job to do" in using the Games to land contracts and investment for UK plc. He will not want to overdo the swanning around and VIP treatment. He may win some brownie points by "being there" at a big moment for the country. But the Games will not transform his or the Coalition's fortunes and normal service will resume shortly.

Who are other political winners? A medal should go to Labour's Dame Tessa Jowell. On August 2, 2002, the then Culture Secretary opened her red ministerial box to find her senior civil servants urging her to tell the PM that Britain should not bid for the 2012 Olympics. Mr Blair thought Paris was a shoo-in but they decided to go for it, persuading a sceptical Cabinet, and the rest will soon be history. Mr Blair deserves a medal for schmoozing the International Olympic Committee.

Other winners may include Jeremy Hunt, the current Culture Secretary. He kept his head down after his torrid time over the News Corp takeover of BSkyB but has used the Games to rehabilitate himself, though he may no longer qualify for the finals in the next Tory leadership race. Hugh Robertson, the Sports Minister, is earmarked for possible promotion when Mr Cameron selects his new team in September.

Who are the Olympics losers? Cabinet ministers believe Theresa May, the Home Secretary, and her officials should have asked more questions much earlier about whether the security firm G4S would get the 10,000 staff it needed. G4S surely gets the wooden spoon for its king-sized cock-up, a terrible advert for using private firms to run state-funded services. Our (public sector) soldiers came to the rescue, of course. Other losers include the militant trade union bosses who threatened to disrupt the Games by calling strikes on trains and at airport border controls – inept leadership which deservedly backfired.

Who will land the biggest political prize? It's early days, but the one to watch is Boris Johnson. The Games are perfectly timed for him. He has just won a second term in what should be a Labour-run city. Many Tory MPs who regarded him as a joker who would self-destruct as Mayor of London, now see him as a very serious contender in the party leadership stakes. They are selling shares in Mr Osborne, his main rival.

Mr Cameron's relaxed and assured performance at the torch ceremony was trumped on Thursday night when Boris had 60,000 people in raptures as he addressed a pre-Games rally in Hyde Park. It was a remarkable event; no other UK politician would have got such an ecstatic response. The Mayor used his freedom from diplomatic constraints to have a pop at Mitt Romney, the US Republican presidential candidate, for suggesting London was not ready.

Similarly, Mr Johnson can distance himself from the Cameron-Osborne project, playing to the Tory gallery by calling for a Europe referendum, for Mr Clegg's Lords reforms to be "vaporised" and demanding Mr Osborne do more to promote growth.

Although he is pledged to serve his four-year term to 2016, I am sure Boris will find a safe Tory seat so he can re-enter the Commons at the 2015 election, and thus contest the party's next leadership election. He does not lack ambition, once joking to friends that he wanted to be "king of the world". Or half-joking, perhaps.

The naturally witty Mr Johnson used to be prone to gaffes, but has grown up politically without losing his populist touch. For him, the next two weeks may prove an important step towards winning gold.