Boris Johnson’s leadership style resembles that of Caesar — and remember how that ended

“The die is cast.”

No, not the words of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson but of a man he studied and read when he took a degree in Roman and Greek classics at Oxford. 

The man was Julius Caesar. The words are those he is supposed to have uttered as he crossed the Rubicon. He thus defied the Senate of Rome before riding to the capital in 49 B.C. and unleashing a civil war that brought him to almost complete power.

Proroguing, or suspending, the British Parliament for five weeks as the Brexit deadline looms isn’t quite as fateful, but it imitates the style of Caesar. It is stunning, unexpected and brutal. 

Like the Roman leader, Johnson is rolling the dice. 

No alternative to backstop

Consider: Johnson has a majority of just one in the House of Commons. He was elected Conservative leader and prime minister in July by Conservative party members — fewer than one half of one per cent of the British electorate. Opinion polls regularly show a large majority against his preferred policy: a no-deal Brexit, which would see Britain crashing out of the European Union on Oct. 31 with no trade agreement at all. 

His negotiating position has been to tell the EU to back down on the so-called Irish backstop — a measure that would keep an almost completely open border between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in line with the Good Friday Agreement signed between Britain and Ireland more than 20 years ago. The Republic of Ireland is, and will remain, a staunch member of the EU.

Johnson calls the backstop unacceptable and undemocratic, a sort of cheaters’ back door to allow European goods into an independent Britain. The Europeans have asked Johnson to suggest another way. He hasn’t — at least not yet.

Instead, he has lobbed a cannon shell into his own parliament. Like Caesar, he surveys a disunited opposition and gambles that this blow will disunite them even further.  

It may not.   

Caesar’s actions, after all, unleashed bloody civil wars in a bitterly divided country. Having defeated his enemies, he was able to rule virtually unimpeded for three years, transforming the political face of the Roman republic. Then he was assassinated by plotting senators.

‘A constitutional outrage’

Johnson, too, will find himself fighting battles on several fronts. The cries of “Shame!” from opposition leaders were to be expected. The denunciation of the prorogation from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, was, however, completely without precedent. He called Johnson’s move “a constitutional outrage.”

Even more astonishing was the attack from a former Conservative prime minister, John Major. He all but called Johnson a renegade and a traitor to the principles upheld by the greatest Conservative prime ministers of the past.

“I cannot imagine,” Major said, “Mr. Disraeli, Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Churchill or Mrs. Thatcher even in their most difficult moments saying let us put Parliament aside while I carry through this difficult policy that a part of my party disagrees with.”

Major didn’t stop there. He said he was taking legal advice to see if the courts could stop the suspension of Parliament.  

Meanwhile, anti-Johnson and anti-prorogation demonstrations were hastily being organized around the country.

‘Mr. No Deal’

And then there are the Europeans. 

They were already deeply suspicious of Johnson and his hardball tactics. The European Council president, Donald Tusk, said publicly that Johnson might become known derisively as “Mr. No Deal” in the history books. Johnson then upped the ante by suggesting the U.K. wouldn’t have to pay a huge chunk of the 36.3 billion pounds (around $ 59 billion Cdn) his government had already agreed it owed Brussels when Brexit is completed. 

The suspension of Parliament merely stoked European rage. Nathalie Loiseau, the former French minister for Europe and current Member of the European Parliament who has the ear of French President Emmanuel Macron, reacted on Twitter with this diatribe: “We saw a no-deal Brexit approaching. Now, as well, we’re getting a no-debate Brexit. What sort of illness is British democracy suffering from when  it fears a debate before taking one of the most important decisions in its history?”


In the storm of denunciations, there is one somewhat overlooked question: Why is Johnson rolling the dice this way? The answer may lie in events three years ago. Then, in the days after the British referendum was won by the “Leave” forces he had led, he seemed all but assured of becoming prime minister when the sitting PM, David Cameron, resigned. But Johnson ducked the challenge. 

He had been unexpectedly savaged by his ally Michael Gove as not up to the job, and he appeared to lose his nerve. He backed out of the race. Theresa May became PM.

Her resignation in June this year offered him a second chance. He seemed determined not only to take it, but to take it like Caesar. He ran on a radical, dice-rattling position of “do or die” Brexit by Oct. 31. Then it became no-deal Brexit.  

And now the temporary shoving aside of Parliament. 

Caesar, like Johnson, was a writer as well as a politician. He wrote, “I am prepared to resort to anything for the sake of  the republic.” By the republic, he also meant himself. It’s a stance Johnson seems determined to imitate.

Caesar also said, according to his Roman biographer Plutarch, “It’s not the well-fed men I fear but the pale and hungry ones.”

Johnson will soon discover how pale and hungry his opponents are.                                         

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