Theresa May’s final PMQs was a microcosm of her time in office – eminently forgettable.
A valedictory prime minister’s questions can serve as a microcosm of the outgoing premier’s time in office. Tony Blair used his to pretend he likes Parliament, while David Cameron reminded MPs he thought the whole thing had been a bit of a wheeze by waving around a picture of a cat and insisting he loved it.
Theresa May’s today continued in that tradition today, in that it was largely unmemorable and overshadowed by her successor.
It began with the unedifying sound of cheers for May by the very MPs who had spent much of the preceding three years plotting against her. And then up stepped Jeremy Corbyn, unsure whether to be magnanimous, to heap on pain or to save his salvo for Boris Johnson, characteristically opting for a mix of all three and going all over the place.
He paid tribute “to her sense of public duty – public service should always be recognised”. May damned him with faint phrase in return, effectively saying he was a good constituency MP. He highlighted increases in poverty, violent crime, NHS waiting times and school class sizes in the last three years, his MPs doing that call-and-response “Up!” thing to be clipped for Facebook. And he called for Johnson to call a general election upon entering Number 10 to “let the people decide their future” (presumably having not seen today’s YouGov polls putting Labour behind the resurgent Lib Dems).
Such was the confusion over his strategy that he bowled May a buffet ball on which of a number of policies, including adoption of the children’s funeral fund, reducing the stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals and scrapping employment tribunal fees – she was most proud of. Backbenchers looked bewildered, only for Corbyn to boast they had been in Labour’s 2017 manifesto and not the Tories. It probably sounding cleverer in the planning.
Theirs has not been a classic PMQs rivalry in the Blair-Hague mould. May ended it by saying: “Perhaps I could just finish my exchange with him by saying this: as a party leader who has accepted when her time was up, perhaps the time is now for him to do the same?”. Cameron did much the same, and Corbyn is still there, although the claim of his outriders he has “seen off” another Tory leader hardly hold up when he has merely witnessed more Tory bloodletting.
“More! More!,” roared the Tory backbenchers, who – it bears repeating – have just got rid of her.
Ian Blackford rose to the usual groans, and paid a sort of tribute to May’s time in office. “The burdens of office are considerable, the loneliness of leadership can be stark,” he said. “You should know,” shouted one MP.
Blackford also told the outgoing PM he had tabled a cross-party early day motion rejecting any prorogation of Parliament. “Woooooooo!,” shouted the Tory backbenchers camply – early day motions are essentially parliamentary graffiti.
New Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson had the best line. She said it was inspiring for girls in her East Dunbartonshire constituency to see women in positions of power, whether as first minister of Scotland or prime minister, adding: “Can I ask the prime minister what advice she has for women across the country on how to deal with those men who think they could do a better job but are not prepared to do the actual work?”
May replied: “My advice to all women is actually be true to yourself, persevere, keep going and be true to the vision you’re working for,” words which suggest she could become an Instagram influencer after leaving office #betruetoyourself #truetothevision.
Wrapping up, May said that she had been told she had answered 4,500 questions over 140 hours in the House, “more than I might have expected”, a shot at speaker John Bercow, under whom this once half-hour affair has quietly doubled.
Her final words in the Commons as PM, her voice faltering as she delivered it, was: “That duty to my constituents will remain my greatest motivation.”
It’s no Blair’s “And that is that. The end.” But at least she didn’t wave a picture of a cat around. Like her term in office, eminently forgettable.