Boris Johnson has likened himself to Cincinnatus, who turned to farming after leaving Rome but returned as a dictator
Not the end: new prime minister, Liz Truss, had the figure of Boris Johnson looming large behind her on the the day she took office. Composite: Guardian Design/Getty Images/AP
He exited in sunshine, she entered after a heavy downpour. And those optics will have suited Boris Johnson just fine.
Normally, when there is a transfer of power, all eyes are on the new, with scarcely a backward glance toward the old. The wattage of the outgoing leader is instantly dimmed, their words no longer weighed or even heard. They are yesterday and everyone wants to think about tomorrow.
There is only one path that avoids that fate and Johnson took it. It is the same route followed by Donald Trump: to escape being a mere ex-leader, hint you might be the next leader.
And so the day of political ritual that played out on Tuesday, stretched out in both time and place – thanks to the Queen’s “mobility issues” which prevented her having her hands kissed (metaphorically, rather than literally) in Buckingham Palace – saw the monarch’s 15th prime minister jostling for airtime with the 14th, as both made the long airborne trek to Balmoral and back.
He seized the stage early, making what was officially his last appearance at the outdoor Downing Street lectern, in the brightness of the morning. He scripted it to leave no doubt that, though it might look like Act V of the tragicomedy that has been the political odyssey of Boris Johnson, he very much considered it no more than the climax of Act III. His message: this is not the end.
His speech contained all the wearily familiar elements. Lies, most obviously. He claimed to have delivered on “social care”, when he has done no such thing. He said he had “got Brexit done”, when of course the Northern Ireland protocol remains unresolved and a point of bitter contention with the European Union.
He trotted out the usual bogus numbers about nurses hired and hospitals built, with some added fictions about gigabit broadband and the like.
There was the now-traditional, passive-aggressive reference to his own exit: politics had “unexpectedly turned out to be a relay race: they changed the rules halfway through, but never mind that now”.
What he offered was self-pity rather than even a glimmer of self-awareness: he was leaving office because of rule-changing by others, rather than rule-breaking by him.
He sought to cast his record as one of glorious achievement – Brexit, vaccines, Ukraine – even claiming to have left the economy in good shape, apparently oblivious to soaring inflation, the biggest fall in living standards since 1956 and record demand for the services of food banks.
But more pressing was his heavy hint of unquenched ambition. He was Cincinnatus, he declared, knowing that reporters would scurry to Wikipedia to discover that the ancient Roman left power only to be summoned back to the helm. Johnson had basically used the Latin for “I’ll be back”.
When Liz Truss finally had her turn at the lectern, addressing a rain-soaked Downing Street in late afternoon, minutes after her allies had huddled under umbrellas, you got a glimpse of the strategy Johnson might just have in mind.
Her delivery was as leaden as the skies. She tried to deploy the upbeat vocabulary that is compulsory on these occasions: she borrowed from the David Cameron book of slogans to brand Britain the “aspiration nation”. There were promises of prosperity and opportunity, spades in the ground, investment and jobs and, inevitably, broadband.
But though she shares her predecessor’s fondness for delusion, even she could not ignore reality entirely.
“Together we can ride out the storm,” she told her drenched audience, insufficiently nimble to nod even to the clunkingly obvious metaphor nature had just handed her.
She acknowledged that there were “severe global headwinds”, naming only two, Covid and Putin’s aggression, thereby staying true to what is now a national pact: don’t mention Brexit.
But that was barely to acknowledge the in-tray that now confronts her. Energy bills will become so astronomically high that families and businesses face penury and bankruptcy.
Helping them will cost so many billions, the country will plunge into an ocean of debt. That debt will have to be repaid from the very same taxes Truss has promised to cut rather than raise, not least because she is reportedly determined to make taxpayers rather than stratospherically rich energy firms foot the bill.
Inflation is rampant, wages cannot keep up: faced with shrinking incomes, with bills they cannot pay, more and more workers are likely to go on strike, just so they can keep their heads above water. If all this leads only to a second winter of discontent, Truss should consider herself lucky: for what looms is an autumn of despair.
Hence that thought of the would-be Cincinnatus and his gameplan. In 2016, events conspired to ensure Johnson did not have to clear up the mess left by the referendum result and his own spearheading of the winning Leave campaign: that job was dumped on another woman, one similarly lacking in the charm and bluster that allowed Johnson to rise and rise.
To be clear, Truss is no Theresa May. Yes, she’s as poor a speaker, but she’s wilier and readier to resort to Johnsonian dishonesty and magical thinking than May could manage, as happy as he was to dodge scrutiny – ducking the big set-piece interviews during the summer campaign – and seemingly drawn to the same, shallow talent pool: among the umbrella folk in Downing Street was one Jacob Rees-Mogg, smiling like a man who knew his seat at the cabinet table was safe.
Unlike May, but like Johnson, Truss seems bent on surrounding herself entirely with loyalists, even if she is, rightly, winning plaudits for the diversity of those she’s appointed to the top three jobs.
Still, the thought lingers that Truss’s burden will be the same as May’s: that her task will be to do the hard, thankless work from which fate has spared Johnson. And then, when she fails, he will be able to sweep in, promising to do what the luckless woman, unblessed with his charisma, failed to do. It’s his own, very specific version of failing upward.
Though of course the failure is hardly his alone. The sight of a charlatan and chancer replaced by someone unable to deliver an address that departed even once from boilerplate and cliche – and this was a speech she had had two months to prepare – is dispiriting for the rest of us.
We are entering a period that could turn very grave, one that cries out for genuine leadership. Yet Downing Street has rarely looked emptier.