Boris Johnson flies close to the sun as Icarus in Downing Street
Published in Newsroom (Wellington), 1 February 2022
Any student of classics would be familiar with the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus.
The pair used wax and feather wings to escape from the island of Crete. But Icarus, despite his father’s warnings, enjoyed flying high and got too close to the sun. That melted the wax, the feathers blew off, and he drowned in the sea.
It would be doubly appropriate if this reminded you of Boris Johnson. Not just that Johnson, an Oxford Classics graduate, loves drawing parallels to the ancient world. But mostly because Johnson is a modern-day, political Icarus.
Johnson’s entire career was about flying high. Reaching for the stars, or at least getting close to the sun, was the point. But either Johnson’s means were insufficient, or he was not serious enough to follow a safe path. Regardless, he fell from a great height.
There had not been many election victories as emphatic as Johnson’s in December 2019.
Many commentators back then predicted Johnson would rule Britain for a decade. He had decimated the opposition and torn down the ‘Red Wall’ of Labour’s Northern constituencies. Johnson was on track to join Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill in the Tory pantheon.
More than that, Johnson had already made history. It was his campaign that won the Brexit referendum. And then it was his constitutional vabanque play that led to the Brexit Treaty being passed in Westminster and Brussels. Whether you like the outcome or not, Johnson’s place in the history books is secure.
The combination of these achievements, his stratospheric popularity, and a disorganised opposition made Johnson appear unbeatable in early 2020. No wonder he shifted his focus to other topics, such as finally writing his long-planned Shakespeare book.
As Covid arrived, that book got delayed once again. And perhaps it is not such a great loss because it might have ended in the same way as his earlier Churchill biography The Churchill Factor, which was mainly about Johnson. After all, the new book was to be called The Riddle of Genius, and so it could have been both about Shakespeare or his biographer. You can still find it on Amazon’s website even though it never got published.
Riddled with genius and convinced by his own Boris factor, Johnson entered the pandemic. And that, at least in hindsight, was the moment when he turned into the Icarus now crashing into the North Sea.
The problem with Johnson was that he eventually dismissed advice, just like Icarus. Or rather, dismissed his chief advisor. That was Dominic Cummings, a controversial figure in Westminster who might be described as an acquired taste. It is rumoured Johnson’s newly-wedded wife Carrie voted leave on Cummings to take back control (sorry for the pun).
Cummings was a master of political management. David Cameron’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, would not have achieved his school reforms without Cummings as his confidante. Without Cummings as director of the Vote Leave campaign, Brexit might have never happened, either.
Cummings’ abrupt methods aside, he was exactly what Johnson needed. Because on his own, Johnson barely got anything done in his career.
Johnson’s reliance on others is legendary. When he edited The Spectator, it often fell to his deputy to ensure the magazine got put together on time. After a chaotic start as Mayor of London, Johnson quickly delegated all policy and project work to his many deputies (all nine of them) and left it to his chief of staff to sort out the rest.
As Prime Minister, Johnson tried the same approach, and in Dominic Cummings as his chief advisor, he had an equally capable and ruthless person to execute things for him. Until Cummings burned one bridge too many with Carrie.
Left on his own, Johnson appeared increasingly lost just as Britain cried out for leadership during the pandemic. That he then also contracted Covid obviously did not help.
To make matters worse, the sacked Cummings began plotting in the background to get his revenge.
At least Icarus did not have to deal with sabotage from Daedalus, but Johnson is probably used to friendly fire from his former allies. It is another constant of Johnson’s career that those once closest to him disparage him the most.
His former journalist colleagues are harsh on Johnson’s behaviour and ethics. His old boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, called him “a gold medal egomaniac” and “a far more ruthless figure than the public appreciates.”
In the words of another of his former colleagues, Simon Heffer, Johnson’s character traits were “indolence, casualness, monstrous selfishness, lack of attention to detail, incompetence, and monumental dishonesty.”
And Michael Gove, with whom Johnson ran the Vote Leave campaign, famously backstabbed him in the race to replace David Cameron, saying that Johnson could not provide leadership or build a team.
Cummings is just the latest in a long line of people who, having worked with Johnson, reveal the picture of a sociopath. “Behind each mask lies another mask — but there’s no masterplan behind all the masks, just the age-old ‘will to power’,” Cummings wrote on his blog. “He was desperate to be prime minister but has almost no interest in the job.”
Until recently, none of these insights were of any significance to the public. Johnson was respected, even loved, for being Boris, the clown-like persona he had created. That Boris was unlike the other politicians. Boris was an anti-establishment figure.
But that ‘Boris’ character had little in common with the real Johnson, an Oxford graduate who is as establishment as they come. Johnson’s personal ethics are likely worse than those of the average Westminster politician that people like to despise. Just as Icarus was no bird, Johnson was not what he pretended to be.
In some ways, it is telling that it was a few parties in Downing Street that made the public aware of the real Johnson. It was not Johnson’s careless talk as foreign secretary, which sent British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to jail in Iran. It was not the fact that his administration is trailing on half its manifesto commitments, according to the Institute for Government. It was not even the erratic management of Covid by Johnson.
No, it may be a birthday cake and a ‘bring your own booze’ garden party that could bring down the British Prime Minister. And if that happened, it would be a fitting end to a political career which always lacked in gravitas.
When Icarus plunged into the sea, it got named after him as the Icarian Sea.
By contrast, Johnson’s party and the British people will likely want to forget this charlatan in Downing Street as quickly as they can when he eventually leaves.