Will Boris Johnson succeed Liz Truss? What ex-Prime Minister said in his speech - and who was Cincinnatus?
Boris Johnson made a classical reference in his final speech as prime minister which suggested he planned on a return to power.
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One of the names that has been circulated already is none other than Boris Johnson, who left Number 10 just over six weeks ago. But while many may think of the idea of his return as unbelievable, the ex-Prime Minister’s final address included a few hints that he may be planning a return to frontline politics.
Outside Number 10 Downing Street, Johnson first spoke of what he was “proud” of from his premiership - mentioning the vaccine rollout, “delivering Brexit” and standing up to Vladimir Putin. Despite adding a pointed jab at the manner in which he left office, referring to the leadership contest as a “relay race” and remarking that “they changed the rules halfway through, but never mind that now” - Johnson said he would be supporting his successor.
He also assured people that the new government would do “everything we can” to deal with the cost of living crisis, amongst increased calls for the Conservatives to do more to help vulnerable families.
However, the part of the ousted Prime Minister’s speech which has sparked a fervent online debate is his reference to Cincinnatus - an ancient Roman statesman and politician. So what did Mr Johnson say, and what does his classical allusion mean?
What did Boris Johnson say?
Mr Johnson said: “Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough. And I will be offering this Government nothing but the most fervent support.”
He continued by mentioning the reasons he will be supporting Ms Truss, saying it is a “tough time for the economy” and a “tough time for families up and down the country.”
Who is Cincinnatus?
According to tradition, in the 5th century BC, Cincinnatus was an old Roman politician and statesman who was in retirement and living life as a farmer. However, when Rome was threatened with military invasion, he took up power of the republic and single-handedly defeated the enemy, before relinquishing his power and returning to his farm.
But Cincinnatus’ time in power did not end there. In fact, he was later called upon to return to Rome, where he led as a dictator.
Why did Boris Johnson compare himself to Cincinnatus - and what are people saying?
The Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP studied classics at the University of Oxford, so it’s not a surprise that he’s well acquainted with figures from ancient Rome. His image of “returning to my plough” was interpreted by some therefore as meant to reflect his intention to return to the backbenches - and continue supporting the government.
However, Cincinnatus’ subsequent return to power is the point which many commentators have seized upon.
Andrew Neil wrote on Twitter: “This is not the speech of a departing prime minister who necessarily thinks he’s going away forever. He’s enough of a classics scholar to know, in comparing himself with Cincinnatus leaving for his farm, that when the call came Cincinnatus returned to Rome.”
Historian Tom Holland meanwhile drew attention to Cincinnatus’ role as a “dictator” - which isn’t exactly a comparison that a democratic leader would want to be making. On a similar point, Mary Beard, a scholar of ancient Rome, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was a “risky analogy.”
She explained: “[Cincinnatus] is often treated as an absolute hero – the man who comes in, saves the state but doesn’t take power for himself long term, but goes back to his plough. [But] it’s not so simple – one thing you need to know about Cincinnatus is that he was absolutely, resolutely anti-populist. He completely opposed the rights of the poor and the unprivileged in Rome – he was, in our terms, extremely right-wing.”
She added that in another story about the figure, he returns to power again “very briefly”, this time to suppress a “popular uprising by the underprivileged”.
Many have linked these parallels to the cost of living crisis, which experts say will hit the poorest the hardest - and has prompted charities and campaigners to criticise the government for not doing enough to support vulnerable households. Johnson was also accused of washing his hands of the crisis as soon as he resigned from office on July 7.
Did Boris Johnson intend to spark such debate?
Will Walden, the ex-Prime Minister’s former director of communications, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that there was no “coming back” for the outgoing prime minister, after almost 60 ministers resigned from his government in July.
He also told LBC: “I think the idea that he’s coming back, which he has lent tacit support to, is very very deliberate, it’s about rewriting the historical narrative and setting his own narrative in going forward.”
Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time the former classics scholar used this particular reference. In 2008, he used the same simile after serving as Mayor of London to speak of his aspirations to become Prime Minister. He said: “Were I to be called, like Cincinnatus from my plough, obviously it would be a huge privilege to serve. But you may have a long time to wait.”
Nick Robinson also suggested that Mr Johnson knew full well what he was doing, commenting: “It may be risky but he’s sending a very clear signal – he said, ‘I’m going away for now, but I may be back’ – it’s a classic version of Hasta La Vista Baby, which he said in the Commons.”
During his final speech in the House of Commons earlier this summer, Mr Johnson bid farewell to his colleagues by signing off with this phrase popularised by The Terminator - but many pointed out that the other catchphrase from the film is “I’ll be back.”
So while Johnson disappeared from the limelight for a short while, a return to frontline UK politics is looking more likely by the minute. It’s fair to say that stranger things have happened.