Boris Johnson's swashbuckling goodbye lets MPs know what they will miss

Final Prime Minister's Questions demonstrates Boris Johnson's skills in skewering opponents and his popular appeal

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his last Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. EPA
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In a dazzling display of verbal barbs and deft use of the English language, Boris Johnson showed fellow Conservatives and the opposition what they will miss when he leaves office.

If the British prime minister wanted to make a more persuasive argument on why he was a one-man election-winning show, it was hard to imagine him doing better than this.

His last Prime Minister’s Questions underlined why there was a petition by 2,000 Tory party members to have his name added as a third candidate on the imminent final leadership ballot. And probably why he would win the majority of the 160,000 members’ votes.

A beguiling orator and a great campaigner, these were his greatest strengths, but an administrator of government minutiae he was not. That, coupled with the self-inflicted mortal wounds of not quite telling the truth, the whole sorry Partygate affair being the most egregious, led to his downfall.

The question of integrity explained why so many Conservative MPs remained largely silent as Mr Johnson deftly, in turn, skewered each leader of the three main opposition parties.

Sir Keir Starmer graciously wished him well before suggesting Mr Johnson had “come down from his gold wallpaper bunker one last time”, in reference to the £200,000 Downing Street redecoration misdemeanour, largely forgotten in what was later to come.

The Labour leader listed a long list of criticisms ― not from him but from the Conservative candidates vying to become the next prime minister. It is a format that will be repeated with regularity for whoever replaces Mr Johnson at the dispatch box for the next PMQs on September 7.

The criticisms ― as they always have done ― swept meaninglessly over Mr Johnson’s head. Instead he drew on his fast rapier of wit, honed in the debating societies of Eton and Oxford.

He mimicked Sir Keir, waving his arms like a puppet stating: “I can tell you why he does that funny, flapping gesture, because he has the union barons pulling his strings from beneath him."

Sir Keir was a “pointless human bollard”, he said . The Labour leader hid his delight in knowing that this was the last time he would face the opponent whose foil came with blood and wit.

A long-running sparring partner, Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party parliamentary leader, went for the sweeping claymore approach. Mr Johnson was a “law breaker” and Downing Street was no place for him. With a dismissive gesture, Mr Johnson suggested he retired to his Highland croft.

The Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey gave his adieu by saying Mr Johnson would now be able to finish his biography of William Shakespeare, then, pointing to the Tory benches said they were “scheming politicians who conspired to bring down a tyrannical leader”.

It was perhaps unwise to cross swords with the bard’s biographer. There was a slight pause as Mr Johnson delved into his memory before likening Sir Ed to Polonius, the long-winded bore from Hamlet.

There were few eulogies in praise of the prime minister. Veteran MP Sir Edward Leigh thanked him for his three years of service before Mr Johnson stood to impart his last words of advice to his successor. Keep America a friend, defend Ukraine and “focus on the road ahead but always check your rear view mirror …”

It seemed this final swipe was reserved for the herd of MPs sitting behind him whose stampede exactly two weeks earlier had crushed the prime minister.

There was a standing ovation, but one could not help feel it was to banish the MPs’ guilt at their blood-letting and the cold reality of what or who was to come next.

Updated: July 20, 2022, 2:27 PM
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