Who is Cincinnatus? Boris Johnson talks Romans, rockets and space hoppers in final speech

Departing UK prime minister hints at possible comeback in address laced with rhetorical flourishes

An engraving of Roman statesman Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus being informed of his new post of dictator of Rome. Getty
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Boris Johnson departed Downing Street on Tuesday with his usual mixture of swagger, colourful turns of phrase and a classical reference that hinted at a possible comeback.

The outgoing prime minister, who compared climate change to a James Bond plot and coronavirus vaccines to the Battle of Waterloo during his three-year term in office, saved a few last rhetorical flourishes for his farewell speech.

Mr Johnson told assembled journalists and MPs that he was returning to his plough like the Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus — who, according to legend, was restored to power in an hour of need.

Switching metaphors, Mr Johnson said he was “one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled its function… I will now be gently re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down invisibly in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific”.

But Mr Johnson’s bluster could not disguise his regret at leaving office in mid-term as he offered an impassioned defence of his record.

Roman comeback hint

“Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough”

An Oxford University classics graduate, Mr Johnson often peppers his speeches with references to the ancient world. However, his mention of Cincinnatus raised more eyebrows than usual amid speculation about his future plans.

The story goes that Cincinnatus was appointed Roman dictator in 458 BC. But after defeating his enemies within 15 days, he chose to lay down his powers and return to his farm.

Legend has it that Cincinnatus was summoned back to power during a crisis in 439 BC and restored to his dictatorial powers at the age of 80, although scholars doubt whether that part of the story is true.

Either way, Mr Johnson’s reference did nothing to dispel the suspicion that he will attempt a comeback if things turn sour for his successor Liz Truss.

Change of the rules

“The baton will be handed over in what has unexpectedly turned out to be a relay race – they changed the rules halfway through but never mind that now”

Mr Johnson delivered this line in a jokey manner but there was no hiding his resentment at being thrown out of office in mid-term.

Tory MPs lost patience with Mr Johnson and forced a leadership election in July after a series of scandals that fatally weakened his authority.

But Mr Johnson blamed his removal on a herd mentality and described it as eccentric to change leaders nearly three years after his landslide election victory.

Opposition MPs said Mr Johnson had shown no contrition or acknowledgement of why he was forced out.

Young Boris on a space hopper

“Unemployment as I leave office: down to lows not seen since I was about 10 years old and bouncing around on a space hopper”

This was Mr Johnson’s unusual way of saying that unemployment in Britain is at its lowest since the mid-1970s.

Mr Johnson, born in 1964, was a schoolboy at the time.

The unemployment figures are a rare bright spot in the British economy as it faces the highest inflation for decades and teeters on the brink of recession.

And not all is well in the labour market as worker shortages cause chaos at airports and unions launch a wave of strikes to demand higher pay.

Cats and dogs

“If Dilyn and Larry can put behind them their occasional difficulties, then so can the Conservative Party”

Larry, the Downing Street cat, has resided at Number 10 under three prime ministers since 2011 — David Cameron, Theresa May and Mr Johnson — and is about to serve as “chief mouser” under a fourth.

Dilyn is the dog belonging to Mr Johnson personally and his wife Carrie, and has featured prominently on Downing Street Christmas cards.

Mr Johnson’s message was that if cat and dog can coexist, then so can supporters of Ms Truss and her defeated leadership rival Rishi Sunak after a sometimes bitter two-month leadership contest.

But Ms Truss was expected to appoint a team of loyalists to senior positions when she starts forming her Cabinet on Tuesday.

Updated: September 06, 2022, 9:28 AM
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