Cincinnatus. Rings a vague bell doesn’t he? You can be forgiven for not quite remembering much about the 5th century BC politician since his name disappeared from public life.
But you will no doubt dimly recall he was referenced by another name that has disappeared from public life; Boris Johnson. On the day when BoJo reluctantly relinquished the Tory party leadership, way back in September 2022, he pointedly referenced the great statesman who saved the state from invasion then left Rome for a bucolic existence on his farm.
He – equally pointedly – omitted to mention that Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was later called upon to return to his city and lead once more as a dictator.
Uh-oh, went our classically educated pundits (a genuinely British phenomenon). But the great comeback never happened, what with the book deal and the raking it in on the public-speaking circuit.
Now please don’t misunderstand, but over the past 48 hours, I – dear God, I can’t believe I’m actually writing this – have found my thoughts turning to Johnson.
Nostalgia would be far too strong a word. I have no intention of summoning him, like King Arthur from Camelot to restore harmony; by the end of his venal, shambolic, rule-breaking reign we were all glad to see the back of him.
But then, this week, Rishi Sunak jettisoned the UK’s bold, world-beating climate targets, introduced by Johnson. What sprang to mind is another famous Roman, Cassius, immortalised by Shakespeare.
“What trash is Rome, what rubbish and what offal, when it serves for the base matter to illuminate so vile a thing as Caesar!”
That base matter would be Rishi “stealth wealth” Sunak. For a long time, commentators have urged him to reveal the real man behind the dapper, dull, expensively dressed preppy dude he projects in the media.
Well, in the past 48 hours, he’s certainly done that and I’m so appalled I’m actually starting to feel my residual animosity towards Boris abate.
His weakening of Britain’s net zero targets has prompted fury among ecologists, business leaders and many of his own MPs, and left much of the world baffled at Britain’s ignominious climb-down from a position of dominance to an also-ran.
If you thought Brexit divided the nation; wait until you witness the net zero schism between the young and the old.
Sunak’s main USP has always resided in the fact he wasn’t mad as a box of economically innumerate frogs, like Liz Truss, and he wasn’t an oversexed, badly trained, if exasperatingly lovable (to those who warm to that sort of thing) Dulux dog, like Boris Johnson.
OK, so nobody actually voted for him but then that is the modern way; Britain somehow appears to have become a Tory fiefdom, handed down to whomever survives the next 1922 committee blood-letting.
Sunak looked sound enough; too rich to be corrupted, too sensible for crackpot craziness and too damned boring to scare the horses. Even when he admitted a bizarre predilection for Jilly Cooper bonkbusters, even going so far as to claim he read them aloud to his daughters, then aged 12 and 10.
In short, he seemed like a reasonable enough stopgap – like a temporary crown that may fall out before the proper one is fitted but nobody cares much.
But Sunak’s tearing up of climate-change deadlines in order to scrabble together a few extra votes in the next election has well and truly shown him to be just as short-termist and self interested as every other politician.
In his modulated tones he has done the press rounds, earnestly explaining his Pooterish reasoning while spreading Orwellian doublethink. Once that level of blatant gaslighting and trustworthiness infiltrates public debate, we are all lost. Because it breaches the social contract. It poisons public discourse and takes us to a place (the US) where hyperbole and misrepresentation have made a mockery of democracy.
It is a hallmark of totalitarianism. Pouring scorn on the previous regime – your own party, Rishi, which elected you to lead it – smacks of the Soviet Union, where inconvenient events were denied and out-of-favour incumbents airbrushed from history.
For democracy to function, much less flourish, we need respect for our intelligence. We also need an Opposition. I’m not a huge fan of Keir “man of straw” Starmer, whose USP is to change his mind, because that’s what he does.But we will make our decision on the basis of his manifesto, not wild hearsay.
We will also cast our vote on whether the Tories are to be trusted, and given Rishi’s intemperate attack on non-existent policies, he’s made a fool of himself and his government.
Returning to Boris (metaphorically) the one area in which he showed courage and statesmanship was on climate change. I think we all know it was his girlfriend then wife Carrie who successfully repositioned him as somebody who gave a damn about the planet and the legacy being left to our children and grandchildren.
By setting ambitious goals for Britain, Johnson was fulfilling his pledge to build back better by placing us in pole position in terms of technology and industry as the rest of the world scrambled to catch up.
The world is burning, flooding and erupting. Sunak thinks he’s buying time; he is squandering it. Experts say a five-year delay to the ban on petrol and diesel cars will increase emissions from the sector by hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon and make reaching our targets difficult if not impossible.
What he has done is shameful and shaming. The nation, particularly the young, will remember at the ballot box. Boris, I strongly suggest you do, too.