Today was David Cameron’s 147th – and final – Prime Minister’s Questions. 147, not a bad knock all considered, and rather unfortunate in the manner of dismissal: caught out on the boundary by a Eurosceptic when swinging for a six. Rotten luck – he should have played it straight.
But before the long walk back to the pavilion there was just time for his swansong: and boy what a swansong it was. Mr. Cameron naturally opted to go out in style – no gingham shirt this time, gosh no, strictly Tory blue twill and matching necktie. Dolled up, he then treated us to a real treat: a whistlestop tour of all the tricks of the trade that made him one of the best PMQs performers to have ever graced the despatch box.
To kick off the PM began with a full display of impeccably researched pop culture trivia, enthusiastically congratulating the full list of British Wimbledon winners with barely a glance at his notes. So clued up was he that when Corbyn went off-piste with praise for American Serena Williams, he was able to wholeheartedly agree, noting how she’d “now overtaken Steffi Graf’s amazing record of 22 grand slams”. Few come to the Chamber this well prepared.
Trivia done with, now a lesson in how to dismantle an argument in style. When challenged on his economic record by his opposite number, the PM furrowed his brow in condescension, before demanding that “if we are going to talk about the economic record, let us get the facts straight”. Having teed himself up he then boomed that since he took office “we have cut the deficit by two thirds”, and that “there are 2.5 million more people in work in our country”. One elbow propping up the despatch box, he went on to rattle off a succession of similar rapid fire statistics with his thumb, completely in command of the chamber. Facts duly listed and voice at a crescendo, he delivered the humourous parting blow that, while Corbyn accuses him of economic sloth, “if they ever got into power, it would take them about a year to work out who would sit where”. This was Cameron in full flow, hitting his opponent with a flurry of highly specific data, all the while cockily leaning forwards as if holding court in a saloon bar.
When the moment called for a more elaborate type of ribbing, Dave knew what to do. Out of the jacket came the reading glasses, before he raised a sheet of paper to read from in mock amusement. Today’s set-piece was a 2015 email to the PM, in which a Tory supporter called Judith importuned him to give “sensible, sober and polite answers to Mr. Corbyn” and “let him create his own party disunity”. Grinning, the PM took off his glasses and joked “after this is over, I have got to find Judith and find out what on earth happens next!”. The House erupted and everyone naturally forgot what Jeremy Corbyn had been asking about.
But when a real spot of bother arises Cameron goes light on the jokes and flips the tables to turn his interlocutor’s argument back against him. It’s a characteristically Oxbridge, essay-crisis style approach to skirting round difficult questions, and didn’t fail to impress today. So responding to Corbyn’s slights against Theresa May’s comments on house-building, Cameron boasted that “when it comes to women prime ministers I’m very pleased to say that pretty soon it’s going to be two-nil, and not a pink bus in sight”. The nod this time to his Party’s socially liberal credentials an added flourish that he is particularly fond of (although quite how the future PM felt about being used as part of Cameron’s game of socially liberal one-upmanship is unclear).
And all of this was garnished throughout with a healthy dose of false modesty, deployed straight from the outset. Accordingly, responding to Danny Kinahan’s suggestion that the PM could manage the national football team or present Top Gear, Dave self-effacingly remarked that they were “fascinating suggestions for future jobs, most of which sound harder than this one”. Later he recalled how Ken Clarke’s “first act as Chancellor of the Exchequer was to fire me as a special adviser”, but this time he went on to state that he was “proud of the fact that one of my first acts was to appoint him to my Cabinet in the coalition Government”. Here we saw false modesty here stray into humblebrag, another tool in his political arsenal that he deploys with mastery.
False modesty was accompanied by its cousin the backhanded compliment, with the PM congratulating Corbyn for taking his mother’s advice and “looking absolutely splendid today”, before going on later to praise his “tenacity”, comparing him to Monty Python’s Black Knight: “He has been kicked so many times”, opined Cameron, “but he says, “Keep going, it’s only a flesh wound. I admire that”. Never has one so fluent in the Mean Girls school of political rhetoric held high office.
Finally we saw part of his repertoire that is rarely exhibited: the emotional and sincere plea or farewell. He thanked the House for their kind regards, and encouraged them to “keep at it”, promising to will them on in their commitment to “public service”. Verbosity and rhetorical flourishes gave way here to a blunt and emotional goodbye. “As I said”, closed Cameron emotionally, “ I was the future once”.
A nod to his first PMQs as opposition leader against Tony Blair, and a suitably theatrical closing statement. However perhaps Peter Lilley said it best when he noted that “in 33 years in this House watching five Prime Ministers and several ex-Prime Ministers, I have seen him achieve a mastery of that Dispatch Box unparalleled in my time”. Quite. Theresa May has a lot to live up to.