The bust that will sit on Boris Johnson’s Downing Street desk, we are told, is not one of Winston Churchill but that of his true hero, Pericles. As the Brexit dawn breaks over the horizon, is this good news?
The champion of Athenian democracy in the fourth century BC came to power through valour in battle and the gift of the gab, carefully “spun” by the historian Thucydides.
Pericles drove his enemies into exile and spent lavishly on new buildings. For 30 years his Athens saw a “golden age” – a phrase Johnson used this week to announce his premiership. But Pericles’s external diplomacy was a disaster. It arrogantly incurred the hostility of surrounding states, who took their revenge by aiding Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars, and eventually crushing Athenian democracy. Pericles listened for advice only to his formidable mistress, Aspasia. He is an odd mentor for a modern leader.
Johnson’s real model is not Pericles but his ward and brief successor as Athenian leader, Alcibiades. A talented, handsome and vain playboy, he could never kick the vices of his youth or rise to the tasks later entrusted to him. His political loyalties were as unpredictable as his sex drive, the latter embracing both his teacher Socrates and his putative stepmother, Aspasia. When Athens tired of 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 charm, guile and “a silken tongue” to return to Athens, where the mob welcomed his relentless optimism. “Strike first to avert attack,” was his motto. He duly led the Athenians to military defeat and eventual ruin. In exile he was soon murdered, either by his political enemies or by relatives of a girl he had just seduced.
Johnson is no Periclean. For all his faults, Pericles respected the balance of Athenian democracy, cultivated a broad appeal and demanded tolerance of “our private differences”. He would never have insulted those sensibly nervous of hard Brexit or ridiculed the farmers whose livelihoods he intended to destroy.
Alcibiades was far more Johnsonian. He plotted his return to Athens through proroguing its democratic assembly, the Pnyx, and welcoming oligarchy. His oratory was infused with Johnson’s chauvinist energy. He deplored inaction. From the moment power is achieved, he said, “we must scheme to extend it. If we cease to rule others, we are in danger of being ruled ourselves.” Athens must take back control. In the event, Alcibiades lost it.
What is even more Grecian in Johnson’s recent behaviour is his recourse to such Homeric characteristics 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 seems to allow anger and pride to overwhelm any calculus of his vulnerability in power.
In 2015 at Central Hall Westminster, Johnson debated Greece versus Rome with the historian Mary Beard. He presented his beloved Greece as a brilliant, sophisticated, multifaceted cradle of democracy. But as Beard pointed out, political Athens was all romantic bluster. It was Rome that triumphed. Greece might fashion marble but, as Virgil said: “These be your arts, to impose the ways of peace.” Beard won the vote.
What is strange is that Johnson should jeopardise his tenuous hold on power by ignoring Virgil’s “ways of peace”. He is inviting his fallen rivals to do their worst, creating a Greek chorus of foes in Jeremy Hunt, Philip Hammond, Penny Mordaunt, David Gauke, Liam Fox and Rory Stewart. They constitute the most awesome intra-party faction since Thatcher’s “wets” in 1980. She spent two years sacking them. Johnson took one night.
We must assume the prime minister is taking a gamble. The smart money is still on this all being a device, a rolling of the political pitch for compromise. Johnson expects to cobble together a form of words that keeps the customs union in place for the time being, and thus the Irish border open.
By building up a bank account of enthusiasm and support within his party, he hopes to be able to use his talents as a schemer and deceiver to persuade everyone that some new border “deal” is sound. He alone is the general who can face down the Spartans of the European Research Group. He meant what he said in Downing Street, about “an exciting partnership with the rest of Europe, based on free trade”.
If this is to be so, a huge responsibility rests with the most senior “grown-up” to survive the recent carnage, Michael Gove. After being shafted by Johnson to exclude him from the leadership finals, he must have swallowed heroic humble pie to go aboard this rickety ship. He must become Johnson’s Cassandra, warning him against the danger of his ways, and of the necessity to respect the arithmetic of democracy in a deeply divided country and parliament.
Johnson in parliament on Thursday was like a Greek hero. He pranced and shouted and buffooned and derided his enemies. The oracles were on side. Honey was flowing the slopes of Hymettus. The gods who had overseen Johnson’s glorious career so far would now watch over him, and he would build them a gilded temple to HS2 in their honour.
If so, it will have nothing to do with Pericles. Alcibiades is now in charge.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist