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Voices: Bitter, divisive and petty – Boris Johnson’s send-off felt less than historic

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Bitter, divisive and petty, Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister ended as it began. And that was just the Labour response, refusing to join the standing ovation at the end of Prime Minister’s Questions.

Johnson tried to claim that he was leaving with “mission largely accomplished” in his final answer, but everyone could see he didn’t mean it, especially as he added: “For now.” It did not feel like a historic moment. He tried to list the achievements of “the last few years” – he couldn’t even bring himself to count them, a tenure about as long as Theresa May’s, Gordon Brown’s and James Callaghan’s.

He started his “words of advice to my successor, whoever he or she may be”, with a startlingly Blairite “stay close to the Americans”. But then descended to the petty, with a graceless attack on the Treasury and a clunkingly obvious hint that his colleagues should vote for anyone but Rishi Sunak: “I love the Treasury but remember if we had always listened to the Treasury we wouldn’t have built the M25 or the Channel Tunnel.”

Keir Starmer had previously exposed Johnson’s incoherence by asking unexpected questions when it was his turn. This was all too subtle for the warrior-theatre of PMQs. Starmer would have been better advised to go for an elaborate show of generosity to his defeated opponent, because the sentimental British love that kind of thing.

But for those of us more interested in the Jane Austen nuances of their exchanges, they were fascinating. Starmer’s first question was why the candidates in the Conservative leadership contest had pulled out of tonight’s Sky News TV debate. Johnson was infuriated by a question that wasn’t about him and pretended he wasn’t following the contest to succeed him closely.

Then Starmer asked about Sunak’s description of rival candidates’ policies as “fantasy economics”. Johnson was trapped. He agrees with Sunak in defending their joint record of protecting people through lockdowns and helping vulnerable households with their energy bills, even though he also chafed against the fiscal reality that wouldn’t let him promise tax cuts.

So Johnson was forced to say, in effect, “Vote Sunak” early on in the session before joining the “Anyone But Rishi” crowd at the end.

In between, he suffered a miserable time. His usual boosterism had finally run out of hot air as he contemplated the early ruin of a career that he once imagined on a par with Winston Churchill’s. He was reduced to advising Starmer that he should be asking about “fixing the ambulances” – only drawing attention to the collapse of the NHS under his government.

And he had to endure a succession of questions from Scottish Nationalists, who had succeeded in packing the order paper. This is always difficult, because he cannot allow any sense of dismissing the sincere aspirations of SNP voters, and so he had to repeatedly point out that Scotland benefited from the fiscal firepower of the UK Treasury – further complicating his love-hate relationship with the bean counters across the road from No 10.

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In his closing words, Johnson repeated the homely advice of David Cameron to fellow politicians – “remember above all that it’s not Twitter that counts” – and tried to raise his eyes to the horizon of history.

“I helped to get the biggest Tory majority in 40 years, and a huge realignment in British politics,” he said. He didn’t explain what that realignment was, and whether it would last, as he hurried on: “We’ve transformed our democracy and restored our national independence. We’ve helped, I’ve helped, to get this country through a pandemic and helped save another country from barbarism, and frankly that’s enough to be going on with.”

In other words, he took us out of the EU, an achievement that divided the nation as it divided the Commons, and everything else he tried to do petered out after a disappointing three years because even his own party couldn’t rely on him to tell the truth. Off he went, as Tory MPs stood and clapped him on the back.

Labour and SNP MPs sat in their places. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, shook her head and said to gesturing Tories: no, she wasn’t going to stand. Starmer, after the briefest of pauses, got up and left the chamber in the opposite direction to the prime minister. No love lost to the end.

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