Thursday, 14 July 2016

David Cameron’s last goodbye

Commons sketch for The Record

“I was the future once,” said David Cameron as he bookended his career with the barb he used so effectively against Tony Blair on his first outing at the Commons despatch box.

Yesterday,  11 years later, six of them as Prime Minister, Cameron called it a day.

The scaffolding of Westminster is ritual and while the weekly jousts in the Commons follow a set pattern greater expectation is placed on occasions like the departure of a Prime Minister. 

David Cameron, who was to the despatch box as to the Manor born, did not disappoint.
With wit, both smooth and savage, he gave the Commons a reminder of what it is losing, a showman who could use the political stage every bit as effectively as Tony Blair. 

The atmosphere was variety hall light and comical, from the roars of Tory cheers that greeted the Prime Minister to the even bigger roar they gave Jeremy Corbyn. 

Cameron himself turned it into a Monty Python sketch, comparing po-faced Corby to the tenacious Black Knight in the Holy Grail film, who doesn’t accept he’s beaten even when all his limbs are cut off.

The opposition leader ploughed on with earnest questions about homelessness to a PM who looked fairly unbothered about becoming homeless himself later in the day.

As the mockery of Labour continued only one person wasn’t laughing. Hilary Benn, a man fit to be Foreign Secretary sacked by a man who can’t be a Prime Minister, stood at the end of the Labour frontbench.

He looked down Corbyn’s row of second-elevens, a grievous face as if he had just arrived from a funeral.

The debris of a life in political battle were all around. Boris Johnson in the far corner of the chamber, about as far from that despatch box as you can get while still smelling power.

There was Michael Gove, lip-biting in a mob of MPs standing by the double doors as the PM emphasised the duty of public service. On the front bench George Osborne whispered advice in his friend’s ear one last time as Theresa May, a serene, necklaced swan waited for the tide of fortune. 

To paraphrase Dennis Skinner, all politicians do not tell lies. If they did there would have been more than 12 volumes of the Chilcot report on the Commons table for the Iraq debate later in the afternoon.

But the PM did tell a final untruth when he declared his love for Larry, the Downing Street cat. As proof Cameron produced a picture of the moggie in his lap but it made him look like a second-hand Bond villain. It was the only time in the half hour when praise rang false.

Finally the Labour leader caught the atmosphere, teasing Cameron about a possible future on Strictly Come Dancing.

No paso doble, replied Cameron to the Islington revolutionary more used to chanting “no pasaran”.

But even after the ribbing Corbyn was generous in his send-off, referencing the sacrifice of political families and thanking Cameron’s mother for advice on dressing properly, which he admitted he was considering. 

All political careers end in failure, except Ken Clarke’s, the best leader the Conservative Party never had. His gets sweeter with each passing decade and there were warm exchanges between Clarke and the soon to be grandee who’d been sacked as a special adviser by the great man in 1993.

It has all been downhill for Cameron from there, you could argue. 

Cameron’s downfall is writ large in one word - Brexit - but only the SNP was so deaf to the mood as to mention that yesterday.

Angus Robertson cooled the air with serious questions about remembering the Srebrenica massacre and the Brexit vote.

Robertson, who joins the Westminster establishment as the longest-serving party leader now, could only halfheartedly condemn Cameron’s record and praised him as well.

The ungracious address was left to the SNP’s Carolyn Monaghan who was drowned out with loud groans when she complained about “unfulfilled vows” and weapons of mass destruction.

Cameron responded breezily about promises made and powers delivered but not implemented by the SNP government.

Resolutely the SNP MPs sat on their hands while the rest of the Commons applauded the departing PM. They know their audience and it is not in the sweet, mawkish backslapping one in the Commons.

But Cameron loves the place and said he would next be watching from the backbenches. “I will miss the roar of the crowd. I will miss the barbs from the opposition. But I will be willing you on,” he said.

From the swift, barbed tongue, which got him into trouble as much as  it saved him, it was inevitable the best epitaph came from Cameron himself.

He regaled the Commons with his take on the New York accent of a man who once recognised him on a Manhattan sidewalk with the words: “Hey, David Cameron! PMQs, we love your show.”

With that, and a wave to his wife and family in the gallery above, the showman took a bow. 

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