‘Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’
If this quote from Abraham Lincoln is a truism, then the destruction wrought on the career of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson by his erstwhile ally, Michael Gove, is total. During an extraordinary time for British politics, in which the country inexplicably voted to leave the European Union, there was one particular event that left journalists and public alike genuinely speechless. Mr Gove would have us believe he underwent a Damascene conversion. That the realisation bumbling Boris wasn’t up to the premier position in the land had suddenly dawned on him.
In reality, the knifing of Boris Johnson was an act of political calculation and treachery which could rank alongside anything ancient Rome has to offer. It had all looked so auspicious just a few weeks earlier for Westminster’s odd couple. Like a political version of the Dickens novel Hard Times, the boastful, bluff, blustering Boris played the part of Josiah Bounderby, whilst Gove took the mantle of Mr Gradgrind (‘Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts’). Though they never looked entirely comfortable in each other’s company, the unified message they delivered together was clearly hitting home and on 23 June it was announced that the Leave campaign had won the vote. Boris’s political capital had never been higher.
The incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron had announced he was standing down and many people were merely waiting for the heir apparent to be crowned. The man who had put personal ambition before the welfare of the country could almost be forgiven for picking out curtains for 10 Downing Street. Gone was the bluster, the buffoonery and the stammering. As the whiff of power got stronger, so did his determination to appear serious and statesmanlike. He even combed his hair.
This brings us to one of the biggest misconceptions of the whole Boris saga. That he is bumbling, that he is not highly educated. This is a man who studied ancient literature and classical philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. He would have been imbued with the learnings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He would have been freely quoting scenes from the plays of Plautus, Terence and Seneca. He has published books on Roman history. This man is no fool. But classical historians are not interesting are they? Clowns are funny. Clowns are memorable. His bumbling persona meant that people would see him getting caught on a zip wire in the middle of London waving his plastic Union Jack flags and say ‘Oh, its just Boris’, with a titter and a shrug. But we should imagine Boris as a much more Machiavellian figure than this. He would have carefully calculated his decision to campaign for a ‘leave’ vote and weighed up every possible outcome and eventuality.
The only outcome he hadn’t envisaged was the one which would eventually bring his ambitions crashing around his ears. This political assassination was as brutal as it was quick. Unlike the ancient assassination it has been likened to, and which spawned the famous Shakespearean line Et tu Brute?, this was carried out by just one man. He had underestimated Gove. He didn’t think that someone else could have the same ruthless ambition as him. As the dust started to settle after the referendum result, the man of ‘facts’, Gove, found his pre-referendum promises unravelling faster than a pound shop scarf. The £350 million for the NHS proven to be the manipulative, vote-winning scam we all thought it was. He in turn overplayed his hand. He was basing his gamble on a support base that simply did not exist and was soundly and deservedly beaten in the second round of voting for the Conservative leadership. Hoisted by his own petard – now there’s a fact we can all recall with fondness.