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Boris, a Cicero reincarnate

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 26 July 2019

He famously claimed his chances of becoming Prime Minister were “about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive”.

It probably means Boris Johnson will be a pizza topping in his next life.

In the meantime, Johnson’s job as Theresa May’s successor will be dominated by sorting out Britain’s Brexit mess.

Delivering Brexit would be difficult for any politician. It is even harder for Johnson because despite his 10 years in high offices, he is remarkably inexperienced.

Johnson was Mayor of London for eight years and Foreign Secretary for two. As Mayor, he was infamous for delegating the day-to-day running of the city to his deputies. As Foreign Secretary, he was powerless since international relations were taken care of by the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary.

In both cases, Johnson did what he does best: give speeches, entertain and be outrageous.

That is not to say he is the buffoon as he is often portrayed. Far from it.

Johnson studied classics at Oxford and made a TV documentary on ancient Rome for the BBC. He wrote an acclaimed biography of Winston Churchill. His columns for the Daily Telegraph are among the wittiest writings in British journalism.

All this would make Johnson a great intellectual – part historian, part journalist. But he was flawed in these disciplines, too. He practised fake news before the term was invented. It even got him sacked from The Times.

It is an ancient question whether intellectuals can be good politicians. If Johnson, the columnist, wrote about himself, he might draw a comparison with Marcus Tullius Cicero. Or rather, he would claim Cicero was a Johnson-like figure in ancient Rome.

Indeed, Cicero was good with words, both written and spoken – almost on par with Boris. He was charismatic and influential. He rarely developed new philosophical ideas but mainly translated ancient Greek philosophy into Latin. It impressed his followers.

As a politician, Cicero was flexible to the point of being opportunistic. He sided, fell out, and sided again with Caesar. It was a bit like Johnson’s relationship with his own party. He later accepted praise for Caesar’s assassination even when he had nothing to do with it. Cicero, that is, not Johnson.

It did not end well, though. Despite his brilliance, Cicero was put on a death list and brutally murdered.

Perhaps he was reincarnated as an olive. Or as Boris Johnson.

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