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What is good in life, Theresa?

All good things come to an end; and Boris too

And so my friends, the end is near. Boris Johnson was on his third attempt to say goodbye to Parliament on Wednesday, and he still didn’t nail it. 

A final Prime Minister’s Questions is generally a warm affair, a farewell in which the departing leader offers and receives kind words, ruefully acknowledges the transience of earthly glory and urges colleagues to pursue the nation’s interests. This one, by contrast, was bitter on all sides, and self-satisfied and petty from Johnson. 

We opened with a plea from Speaker Lindsay Hoyle for a respectful discussion that focused on policy not personalities. Johnson responded by calling Keir Starmer a “great pointless human bollard”. 

The Labour leader had opened with a joke about football and EastEnders and the Tory leadership debates that was so complicated and unwieldy it needed a team of forklift operators to assemble it. But for the most part, his approach was simply to read out damning quotes from different candidates to succeed Johnson about the government’s record. 

Starmer had got under Johnson’s skin

At first the prime minister threw out his usual lines about the wickedness of Labour governments and the wonderful joy of living in Borisland, where the doctor always has time to see you and sugar is good for your teeth. But as he went on, it was clear that Starmer had got under Johnson’s skin. 

Finally, the Labour leader quoted Kemi Badenoch: “Why should the public trust us? We haven’t exactly covered ourselves in glory.” He asked Johnson why none of the candidates had a good word to say about him. 

Johnson rose, furious, his face pink as a pork sausage, his right hand jabbing at Starmer and his left reaching back for a reassuring scratch of the prime ministerial arse. Words tumbled out of him more or less at random. No one could name any Labour policies, he said. He had fixed Covid and got Brexit done. He gestured towards Starmer again and began waving his arms. “I can tell you why he does that funny wooden flapping gesture,” he said. “He’s got the union barons pulling his strings from beneath him.” 

His MPs cheered him, delighted at this repartee. “BORING!” Nadine Dorries yelled at Starmer. “BORING!” Were they regretting forcing him out? It is certainly true that no one else will ever be able to match Johnson’s approach at these events of utterly ignoring questions, and indeed reality, and speaking instead as though he had personally relieved Mafeking while discovering a cure for cancer. It’s not so much shamelessness as obliviousness. 

Johnson departs with mysteries unsolved

Contemplating, as I was, another political career ending in failure, it struck me that Johnson departs with mysteries unresolved. Chiefly, we have never got to the bottom of what it is that draws his hand back to his rump during almost every question. An untucked shirt? A nasty rash? Worms? He scratched his arse as he answered Marco Longhi, as he discussed the Windrush Scandal, and as he talked about legacy prosecutions of soldiers in Northern Ireland. He did it when he talked about fisheries and when he discussed student loans. As we entered the fortieth minute I was beginning to itch myself, mainly to take him to a vet. 

At last Sir Edward Leigh rose. “On behalf of the House,” he began, “may I thank the prime minister for his three-year record of service.” Many parts of the House voiced their dissent from the sentiment, but still, it was a moment for Johnson to bid us all adieu. Would he be gracious? Self-deprecating? Not a bit of it.

He phrased his farewell as advice to his successor, but it was really a settling of scores. He attacked the Treasury and warned about attacks from behind – both digs at Rishi Sunak – and then reached back for one long final scrape of the rump. “Remember, above all, it is not Twitter that counts.” It was a bizarre comment from a man whose government was characterised by U-turns, but this is how he sees himself now: not a disgraced leader exposed as unfit for office but a giant hounded from office by MPs panicked over a few tweets. 

 “I helped to get the biggest Tory majority for 40 years and a huge realignment in UK politics,” he said, with typical modesty. “We have helped – I have helped – to get this country through a pandemic and helped save another country from barbarism.”

All through the session, he’d offered suggestions he expects to return as prime minister. It’s impossible to know if he believes it, or just sees it as a way of keeping the spotlight. He had a final one for us as he finished, a quote from Terminator 2: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

It was a shameless bid to the newspaper photoshoppers, an unsubtle hint that He’ll Be Back. Though it’s worth considering that the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, and its successor the T-1000, are better known for causing huge amounts of random damage than for achieving their goals.

What a failure

It’s likely those will be Johnson’s last words in the Commons as prime minister. They got a laugh, so he’ll have been pleased with that, but what a failure. A man who self-consciously writes biographies of Churchill and Shakespeare offered as his valediction no original phrase for the ages, but a jokey reference to a Nineties action movie. It’ll be a headline tomorrow, a pub quiz question next year, and forgotten within a decade.

His MPs clapped him out – Theresa May kept her arms folded, Andrea Jenkyns sobbed, Dorries demanded to know why Labour didn’t join in – but the circus was already moving on. A couple of hours later we got the real news of the day. Penny Mordaunt was out of the contest to succeed Johnson. It will be Sunak or Liz Truss. The Foreign Secretary, so often written off, sent a delighted tweet: “Thank you for putting your trust in me. I’m ready to hit the ground from day one.” And you know, I really think she is.  

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