Why Johnson’s Final Address To PMQs Encapsulates The Cynicism and Opportunism Which Has Always Defined His Political Career

On Wednesday 20th July, Boris Johnson had his final ever PMQs as Prime Minister. Political nerds like myself will be aware that a Prime Minister’s final PMQs is, in fact, a rather unique and peculiar affair. Often, it is the closest British politics ever gets to being emotional. These men and women, some of whom start their political careers as genuine young ideologues with big plans and big ideas, have found themselves having to play the game and compromise their values, losing the twinkle in their eye to the Machiavellian style that British politics often demands. 

But in those last moments of power, as their respective roads come to an end, sometimes we witness the vestigial elements of those young, lithe idealists. For the likes of Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Theresa May, when their time came, for a split moment a fragment of that twinkle seemed to return as they addressed the House of Commons. This Wednesday, no such twinkle could be seen in Johnson’s eyes. Why? Because there never was one in the first place.

To take the examples of Blair, Cameron, and May, during their final PMQs–whatever you think of their individual premierships–they displayed a degree of humility and gratitude for their time in office. All three, in their closing words, rose above partisanship and the usual rancours of the Commons–which, the majority of the time, sounds like a blasé Oxford Union debate–and praised the democratic system of the United Kingdom. In all three, there was an undertone of honour, integrity, and what it means to serve. Finally, after a career which demands some level of egotism and self-belief, they zoom out to pay respect to the wider picture.

Take Blair—in his final statement in 2007 he said, “I have never pretended to be a great House of Commons man. But I can pay the House the greatest compliment I can by saying that, from the first to last, I never stopped fearing it”. That ‘fear’ and ‘respect’ for the system is absolutely essential. This is because democracies are fragile, and–once you take away the bureaucracy, the institutions, and the rhetoric–all that they ultimately rely on is respect. Compare that to Johnson’s empty ostentation of all the things he has supposedly achieved: “I helped to get the biggest Tory majority for forty years” etc. Both his final address to PMQs, and his earlier resignation speech, smack of extant hubris. The narrative is that ‘the people’ still love him, and that his downfall was purely the result of petty party politics. Neither humility nor any sense of the greater good pervaded either of his final addresses.

Conversely, take two prior examples, Cameron and May. Cameron, in his address back in 2016, described how he “will miss the roar of the crowd” and the “barbs from the opposition”. Cameron barely mentioned the Conservative Party, instead stating that he was “willing on this place [The Commons]…we can be pretty tough and challenge our leaders, perhaps more so than other countries…that is something we should be proud of and we should keep at it…the public service, the national interest, that is what it’s all about”. Likewise, May ended her final address saying that “duty, to serve my constituents, will remain my greatest motivation”. Cameron ended by ironically, and self-deprecatingly, pointing out that “I was the future once”, referring to when, back in 2005 as leader of the opposition, he had remarked that Blair “was the future once”. 

Johnson, on the other hand, believes to some extent that he is still the future, smugly stating, “mission largely accomplished…for now”. However, as Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, astutely pointed out: “I’m sure the whole House is looking forward to him completing his book on Shakespeare…We await to read what he really thinks about tragic figures, brought down by their vaulting ambition”. Indeed, Johnson is very much a Shakespearean tragic figure, except for the fact that there has been no great soliloquy of recognition (‘anagnorisis’) as the likes of Hamlet and Macbeth give us.

What best encapsulates the difference between Johnson and his predecessors is his final line. With his usual vacuous swagger, Johnson cited Arnold Schwartznegger in the 1980s classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day (which, if you haven’t seen, you really must), delivering the line: “Hasta la vista, baby” (‘See you later’). 

No, Boris, you won’t. As Blair said of himself in his very final line to the Commons, “That is that, the end”.

Guy Ward-Jackson

Guy Ward-Jackson (he/him) is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Blue for Michaelmas term. Previous roles include Senior Editor of News, Senior Editor of Investigations, BlueLight, and Junior Editor of Global Affairs. Currently second, going into third year studying history at Trinity.