So, Boris Johnson can foresee the day when he will be a modern Cincinnatus, dragging himself away from his humble farm to lead his country in a time of great need. That’s who he compared himself with when asked whether he would like to become Prime Minister.
Cincinnatus’s seminal moment conjures up an evocative scene. As the historian Livy relates, he was either digging a ditch or ploughing a field on his farm when duty called (Rome was threatened by the Aequi), whereupon he wiped his muddy hands before donning the toga of office. But while he may be an enduring model of Roman virtue, any parallels with Boris Johnson don’t stand up to much scrutiny.
If our country, and the Conservative Party, must have a strong leader to dig us out of our depressing financial rut, the time is now – not three or four years down the road, when the economy is unlikely to be any worse than it is at the moment (it may even be improving). Committed as he is to another three years as London Mayor, Boris is simply unavailable to act the saviour.
Also, Cincinnatus had no part in his elevation. He was appointed in his absence, and the first he knew of it was the surprising appearance in his field of a delegation, asking him to return to the fray. Boris, in contrast, loves the limelight and, as an ambitious type, would need no persuading to take on a key national role. Unlike Cincinnatus and his plough, Boris is busy at City Hall in London. ‘Gardening leave’, let alone farming, is far from his mind.
Neither Boris nor any other contemporary British politician, a fortnight into a new job, would copy the Roman statesman’s final act. As soon as the crisis was over (after fifteen days), Cincinnatus didn’t hang around to lap up the applause or consolidate his power. Instead he resigned and carried on digging, or ploughing, where he’d left off.