With the Conservative Party consumed by the prime ministerial succession, it’s easy to forget that the incumbent is still technically in office – and increasingly it seems that MPs have. Coming as it did on the back of Boris Johnson’s leadership launch, today’s PMQs – one of Theresa May’s last – was unsurprisingly subdued, with plenty of green leather visible.
But despite the lack of fireworks, this afternoon’s session did offer some clues as to the challenges awaiting the next occupant of Number 10.
The SNP are dreaming of a Boris Johnson premiership
Ian Blackford chose not to scrutinise May on her prime ministerial record, but instead on proposals made by her would-be successors. Did she agree with Boris Johnson’s proposed tax cuts for higher earners, with a no-deal Brexit, or with proroguing parliament in order to achieve it?
In his follow-up, Blackford went on to characterise the Brexiteer candidates for the premiership as ideological fantasists. May, predictably, wouldn’t be drawn into offering condemnation. Instead, she told the SNP leader that he would have to opportunity to question her successor in due course. On today’s evidence, that is a prospect that Blackford and Nicola Sturgeon will relish. For the Nats, there is no greater advertisement for independence than a Johnson or Raab premiership.
Theresa May knows what she wants her legacy to be
One of the livelier moments in today’s uniformly dreary exchange between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn saw the prime minister chide the Labour leader for failing to acknowledge the government’s plans to legislate for zero net carbon emissions by 2050 – the last thing May is likely to do as prime minister.
Vicky Ford, an enthusiastically loyal government PPS, also rose to praise the plan. May also spoke at length on having successfully criminalised modern slavery.
With Westminster overwhelmed by May’s failures in office, the prime minister is already sanding the sharper edges off her own political obituary.
MPs are no longer pretending that PMQs is about scrutiny
Genuinely witty observations from Theresa May at the despatch box are rare. One, however, was forthcoming this afternoon. As Jeremy Corbyn sat down after his final lengthy peroration, May drily noted that the leader of the opposition had secured his clip for social media. And as ever, Ian Blackford’s questions – or rather, speeches – fell into the same category.
That opposition members treat Wednesday lunchtimes as an opportunity to generate viral content for their own supporters has long been obvious, and, indeed, openly acknowledged by their teams in private.
But it is another thing for the prime minister herself to acknowledge that at the despatch box. The increasing pointlessness of PMQs as an opportunity to scrutinise is chief among the many reasons MPs are switching off and staying away, much to Downing Street’s consternation. Renewing the sense of occasion will be a big ask for the next Tory leader.