Boris Johnson was a ghost at his penultimate – potentially his last – PMQs. Johnson’s resignation as Conservative leader has rendered him a mere conduit for Keir Starmer’s barbs against the eight remaining Tory candidates.
With his hand thrust in his jacket pocket, Johnson desperately tried to put a positive spin on his tarnished legacy. He pointed to the cost-of-living payments that will hit people’s bank accounts tomorrow. He reminisced about getting Brexit done and praised his attempts to level up the country. He hailed the Covid-19 vaccine programme.
No one was listening. The Labour leader used his six questions to fire criticism at those competing to become the next prime minister. The battle lines between Starmer and Johnson’s successor are already being drawn. His first three questions took in non-dom tax status, offshore tax havens and tax avoidance schemes.
It was a clear reference to the tax affairs of some of the leading candidates and their families. Nadhim Zahawi has faced questions over a family offshore trust in Gibraltar and Starmer’s fifth question zeroed in on the Chancellor or, as Starmer put it, the “honourable member for Stratford and Gibraltar”. And as we know from Rishi Sunak’s fall from grace in April, when his wife was revealed to have non-domiciled status, the public don’t mind a millionaire until their tax affairs are brought into it.
In a week when Johnson has committed to resigning as prime minister, Starmer used his final question to try to skewer Sunak. A clear tactic from Labour emerged. Any talk of rebuilding the economy from Sunak will be met with: “What were you doing for two years as Chancellor of the Exchequer?” Sunak will naturally point to the Covid-19 pandemic and its drain on public finances but Labour looks poised to link him, or whoever succeeds Johnson, with the Tories’ 12 years in office. That will be essential in combating the Tory line that they have a “fresh face” or a “clean start” with a new leader.
Johnson hinted that this may be his last PMQs, even though one is scheduled for next week. Perhaps he will be out of the country. Tony Blair received a minute-long standing ovation from both sides of the chamber after his last PMQs. Johnson shuffled away as the Speaker addressed the other business for the day. The Prime Minister said that he would leave office with his head held high. As far as MPs are concerned, he’s already gone.