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8 July 2022

How Boris Johnson authored his own Greek tragedy

The flaws that bring down the ancient protagonists of Athenian drama feel eerily familiar today.

By Rachel Cunliffe

About halfway through Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone Haemon, son of Creon, king of Thebes, desperately tries to reason with his father and get him to see that his actions are tearing the city apart. Creon is of the view that, as king, he can and should do whatever he likes, and that all conventions and norms (like giving your nephew a proper funeral and not executing your niece when she insists on burying him against orders) are irrelevant compared with his own absolute power. Haemon gently points out that not everyone agrees with his father’s attitude – in fact, the people of Thebes are turning against Creon – and begs him to relent before it’s too late.

“Should I govern the city for others and not for me?” Creon retorts angrily. “There is no city that belongs to one man,” Haemon answers.

“So a city does not belong to the man who governs it?” comes the retort, to which Haemon replies: “One man alone can only govern an empty city.”

Boris Johnson appears to be a fan of Sophocles; at a UN climate conference in September 2021 he quoted a line from earlier in Antigone in the original Greek. The Prime Minister (for that is the post he still holds) loves to demonstrate his classical acumen, peppering speeches with references to Homer and Augustus; he has made it widely known that he sees himself as a modern-day Pericles and keeps a bust of the great Athenian statesman in his office. Even while he was being grilled by the Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday as ministerial resignations poured in, he joked that some lines he himself had written about leaders clinging on to power (referring to Gordon Brown in 2010) might have been authored by Cicero, Plato or Aristotle.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if Johnson has actually read Antigone – or any of the great Athenian tragedies –because the flaws that bring down those ancient protagonists (please, let’s not call them heroes) are ones that feel eerily familiar today: arrogance, stubbornness and a refusal to change course even when it is obvious that persevering will end with self-destruction.

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Momentum for the Prime Minister’s downfall has been building for eight months, since the bizarre row over the then relatively obscure MP Owen Paterson. He was found to have breached Commons rules on paid advocacy – a minuscule scandal by recent parliamentary standards that would never have made the front pages had Johnson not decided to wade in and demand Tory MPs try to change the rules in Paterson’s favour. The attempt backfired spectacularly: the outrage was so intense the government was forced to reverse its position, snubbing all the MPs who had loyally voted for changes, and the Conservatives promptly lost a by-election when Paterson had to resign. Johnson did not need to squander his political capital in this way. There was no reason for it, except that he clearly felt he ought to be able to ignore the rules if he felt like it.

This reckless disregard for convention and precedent was hardly new (it has been a feature of Johnson’s career, in journalism and politics, for decades), but the Paterson debacle was the first time it resulted in actual consequences for his government, battering the faith Conservative MPs had in their leader. The same scenario – faithful Tories repeating the lines fed to them by No 10, only for those lines to suddenly change – was repeated time and time again during the endless months of the partygate scandal, as Downing Street continued to deny that any lockdown-breaking social events had taken place in the face of mounting evidence that they had.

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Again, this didn’t need to happen. A humbler, more self-aware prime minister could have minimised the damage by immediately acknowledging that, yes, the parties had occurred, they had been a mistake, and everyone involved was extremely sorry. It was the stream of easily disproved denials and the absence of any contrition or sense of accountability from Johnson that caused the saga to drag on, resulting in him getting a criminal sanction from the Metropolitan Police – and everyone who had defended him being humiliated.

So it’s no surprise that Johnson also botched the response to the revelations about alleged misconduct by Chris Pincher, a whip, insisting he hadn’t known about Pincher’s lecherous reputation when it was obvious evidence would come out that he had. Anyone sane could have advised him that denials would make it worse, but when someone is convinced not just that they are right but that they have the power to do whatever they want, no amount of advice will cut through. And when the inevitable happened, when Johnson’s supporters told him the game was up and that too many ministers had quit for his position to be tenable, of course he doubled down. Of course he angrily sacked Michael Gove, the man who had been holding his fracturing government together, for telling him to resign – just as Creon sends his son away in a fury. Of course he acted as though the rules of parliamentary democracy, which grant a prime minister a mandate only if they can command the confidence of MPs, did not apply to him. Of course he preferred to rule an empty city (ministers were literally resigning from his government faster than they could be replaced) than change course.

And of course, having shredded democratic norms and torn the Conservatives apart, Johnson eventually destroyed himself. The legacy he has always dreamed of – as one of the great men of history – now looks laughable. Even the lucrative speaking engagements and TV gigs that were clearly his retirement plan may be out of reach after this absurd performance. His reputation and his party are in tatters.

Greek tragedy is not kind to protagonists with an outsized view of their own importance. Pentheus gets ripped apart by his mother for disrespecting the gods; Ajax falls on his sword when he realises the extent to which he has shamed himself. As for Creon, his unflinching stubbornness results first in the death of his niece, then his son, then his wife. In the final scene of the play, the king of Thebes has at last learnt his lesson. It’s unclear if Boris Johnson ever read to the end.

[See also: David Gauke: Why Tory MPs must force Boris Johnson from No 10 immediately]