The Inside Word

The subtle art of decoding polly-waffle

When former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson left Number 10 Downing Street this week, he gave an undertaking that, at face value, could be read as an obituary to his political ambitions.

Likening himself to the 5th Century Roman leader Cincinnatus, Johnson said “I am returning to my plough”, perhaps hinting at a quiet and simple life after leadership.  

The simile has, however, sent some UK political watchers into a spin because of Boris’s history as an Oxford scholar of the classics. Because after ploughing, Cincinnatus was later recalled to Rome to lead once again as a dictator.

Johnson’s critics point to this as clear evidence that he has every intention of sticking around and agitating for the leadership – like his hero Winston Churchill – until his star rises again.

The art of political double speak is nothing new. In fact, Johnson’s invoking of Cincinnatus reminds us politicians have been saying one thing and ultimately doing another since at least the 5th Century.

Here in Australia in the early 2000s, Peter Costello deflected a question about whether he intended to challenge John Howard’s leadership with mock indignation, saying: “Someone with the track record of loyalty to the Party that I’ve shown, I think doesn’t have to answer questions like that”.

Again, at face value that seems like a reasonably straightforward denial of any active leadership ambition. However, the response takes on a whole new meaning when viewed in light of Howard’s own decades earlier denial of any plans to challenge his then leader Andrew Peacock.

Howard said: “Someone with a track record of loyalty to the liberal party such as mine shouldn’t have to answer such questions.”

Our most successful politicians are generally clever and witty communicators, and most enjoy the word play and mental sport of delivering coded messages.

So how much should be read into BoJo’s hint that he plans to return? In their haste to prove their cleverness and command of classical literature, the Johnson critics may have overlooked a 21st Century clue hidden in plain sight.

The outgoing PM also likened himself to “one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled his function and I will now be gently re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down invisibly in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific”.

Once again, this may seem like a retirement plan, without the full context. NASA’s website informs us that after splashing down, its booster rockets are “recovered by ships, returned to land, and refurbished for reuse”.

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