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20 July 2022

PMQs: Boris Johnson warns that he’ll be back

At his final PMQs, Johnson made clear that he is as hungry for power as ever.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Boris Johnson struck a bitter, almost indifferent, tone as he limbered up to the dispatch box for the final Prime Minister’s Questions of his shattered premiership.

Unmistakably aggrieved at being ousted just three years after realising his life-long ambition of entering Downing Street, the outgoing PM – usually chief entertainer of the arena – could only half-heartedly joke of not following “particularly closely” the race to replace him as he and Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, traded blows over Tory infighting.

Much like he did in his resignation speech, in which he could not bring himself to use the words “I resign”, Johnson found himself stubbornly refusing to let go of the reins, signing out with “mission largely accomplished”, pointedly adding this may only be “for now”.

Students of Scottish politics will recall similar words from Alex Salmond when he exited as first minister in 2016, telling MSPs: “It’s goodbye from me – for now.” He later wreaked havoc on the SNP, almost destroying Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, and set up the rival pro-independence party Alba.

Johnson, who has been accused by the SNP and Northern Ireland’s SDLP, will not like the Salmond comparison, which is perhaps why he chose to bow out by channelling the Terminator: “Hasta la vista, baby.” (This prompted thoughts of another slogan: “I’ll be back.”)

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Nor could he resist a potshot at the man he believes responsible for hastening his downfall, his former chancellor and now leading candidate to replace him Rishi Sunak. In words which could have been accompanied with a knowing wink to Tory MPs and members who will determine his successor, he pointedly remarked: “I love the Treasury, but remember if we’d always listened to the Treasury we wouldn’t have built the M25 or the Channel Tunnel.”

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If it was an exit tinged with resentment, then the chamber responded in kind. Starmer was pitiless as he picked over the outbreak of blue-on-blue warfare which Johnson’s demise has triggered.

Backbenchers, too, rose to twist the knife, reminding Johnson of his “bodies pile high” remark, the Tory cronyism that ran rife during the Covid-19 pandemic and sharp rises in child poverty in parts of the Red Wall where the PM was once so popular.

And while Tory MPs rose to applaud before Johnson left the stage, they were joined by no MP from the opposition, quite unlike the final PMQs of Tony Blair – a figure whose success Johnson so dearly wanted to emulate – at which David Cameron’s Conservatives reluctantly paid tribute. While some of Johnson’s closest allies could not contain their emotion – Andrea Jenkyns shed a tear – a sphinx-like Theresa May refused to clap, despite the former PM knowing all too well the heartache of being thrust from office.

What Johnson will do next remains to be seen, but in some ways the fallen “world king” leaves the Commons dispatch box as he arrived at it – divisive, unpredictable and hungry for more power.

[See also: How inflation is worse for women]