The bust that can sit on Boris Johnson’s Downing Road desk, we’re advised, isn’t one in all Winston Churchill however that of his true hero, Pericles. Because the Brexit daybreak breaks over the horizon, is that this excellent news?
The champion of Athenian democracy within the fourth century BC got here to energy by means of valour in battle and the present of the gab, fastidiously “spun” by the historian Thucydides.
Pericles drove his enemies into exile and spent lavishly on new buildings. For 30 years his Athens noticed a “golden age” – a phrase Johnson used this week to announce his premiership. However Pericles’s exterior diplomacy was a catastrophe. It arrogantly incurred the hostility of surrounding states, who took their revenge by aiding Sparta within the Peloponnesian wars, and finally crushing Athenian democracy. Pericles listened for recommendation solely to his formidable mistress, Aspasia. He’s an odd mentor for a contemporary chief.
Johnson’s actual mannequin isn’t Pericles however his ward and temporary successor as Athenian chief, Alcibiades. A gifted, good-looking and useless playboy, he might by no means kick the vices of his youth or rise to the duties later entrusted to him. His political loyalties have been as unpredictable as his intercourse drive, the latter embracing each his trainer Socrates and his putative stepmother, Aspasia. When Athens uninterested in him, he defected to its enemy, Sparta.
He then defected to Sparta’s enemy Persia, and when this gambit ran its course Alcibiades relied on allure, guile and “a silken tongue” to return to Athens, the place the mob welcomed his relentless optimism. “Strike first to avert assault,” was his motto. He duly led the Athenians to army defeat and eventual smash. In exile he was quickly murdered, both by his political enemies or by kinfolk of a woman he had simply seduced.
Johnson is not any Periclean. For all his faults, Pericles revered the steadiness of Athenian democracy, cultivated a broad attraction and demanded tolerance of “our personal variations”. He would by no means have insulted these sensibly nervous of onerous Brexit or ridiculed the farmers whose livelihoods he supposed to destroy.
Alcibiades was way more Johnsonian. He plotted his return to Athens by means of proroguing its democratic meeting, the Pnyx, and welcoming oligarchy. His oratory was infused with Johnson’s chauvinist vitality. He deplored inaction. From the second energy is achieved, he stated, “we should scheme to increase it. If we stop to rule others, we’re in peril of being dominated ourselves.” Athens should take again management. Within the occasion, Alcibiades misplaced it.
What’s much more Grecian in Johnson’s latest behaviour is his recourse to such Homeric traits as impetuosity, grudge, revenge and empty rhetoric. Like Priam, he hurls his enemies from the gates of Troy, howling accusations of indecision and pessimism. Like Priam, he appears to permit anger and satisfaction to overwhelm any calculus of his vulnerability in energy.
In 2015 at Central Corridor Westminster, Johnson debated Greece versus Rome with the historian Mary Beard. He offered his beloved Greece as an excellent, subtle, multifaceted cradle of democracy. However as Beard identified, political Athens was all romantic bluster. It was Rome that triumphed. Greece would possibly trend marble however, as Virgil stated: “These be your arts, to impose the methods of peace.” Beard gained the vote.
What’s unusual is that Johnson ought to jeopardise his tenuous maintain on energy by ignoring Virgil’s “methods of peace”. He’s inviting his fallen rivals to do their worst, making a Greek refrain of foes in Jeremy Hunt, Philip Hammond, Penny Mordaunt, David Gauke, Liam Fox and Rory Stewart. They represent essentially the most superior intra-party faction since Thatcher’s “wets” in 1980. She spent two years sacking them. Johnson took one evening.
We should assume the prime minister is taking a chance. The good cash remains to be on this all being a tool, a rolling of the political pitch for compromise. Johnson expects to cobble collectively a type of phrases that retains the customs union in place in the meanwhile, and thus the Irish border open.
By increase a checking account of enthusiasm and help inside his get together, he hopes to have the ability to use his skills as a schemer and deceiver to influence everybody that some new border “deal” is sound. He alone is the final who can face down the Spartans of the European Analysis Group. He meant what he stated in Downing Road, about “an thrilling partnership with the remainder of Europe, based mostly on free commerce”.
If that is to be so, an enormous duty rests with essentially the most senior “grown-up” to outlive the latest carnage, Michael Gove. After being shafted by Johnson to exclude him from the management finals, he should have swallowed heroic humble pie to go aboard this rickety ship. He should turn out to be Johnson’s Cassandra, warning him towards the hazard of his methods, and of the need to respect the arithmetic of democracy in a deeply divided nation and parliament.
Johnson in parliament on Thursday was like a Greek hero. He pranced and shouted and buffooned and derided his enemies. The oracles have been on facet. Honey was flowing the slopes of Hymettus. The gods who had overseen Johnson’s wonderful profession to date would now watch over him, and he would construct them a gilded temple to HS2 of their honour.
In that case, it is going to don’t have anything to do with Pericles. Alcibiades is now in cost.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist