Witty, assured and looking just a little bit relieved, the Prime Minister got half an hour to deliver his parting shots. Sarah Freeman reports.
If David Cameron was feeling bitter disappointment at how his reign at Number 10 had ended so quickly and so unnecessarily, he was hiding it well at his final Prime Minister’s Questions.
Striding into the chamber at three minutes to midday, he also looked 10 years younger than he has at any time in recent weeks. Playing to the crowd, everyone was there to witness his final performance.
Sam Cam and the children were in the gallery, squeezed alongside various long-serving staff members and a good 10 minutes before the Speaker John Bercow took to his feet, the press box was already packed like sardines. Even Boris Johnson was there.
Things got off to a rather formal start. There was much praise for Andy Murray who has had a rather better couple of weeks than the PM, but the tone was set by Cameron’s response to a gentle request from Ulster Unionist MP Danny Kinahan, asking him to outline his plans for the rest of the day.
“Apart from a meeting with the Queen,” began Cameron. “My diary is remarkably light.”
Like an old school comic, who knew that he might be about to be hooked off stage any minute, Cameron kept them coming, determined to enjoy the roar of the crowd one last time.
He joked that the Conservatives were 2-0 up when it came to women Prime Ministers, he threw in the odd reference to Monty Python and he noted that while there were a number of high profile vacancies going begging, England manager and Top Gear host were both rather more difficult jobs than the one he was about to vacate.
Cameron was enjoying it and it seemed to be rubbing off.
Even Jeremy Corbyn, who looked like he had earlier been the subject of a daytime TV makeover, looked relaxed. Wearing a smart suit, red tie and his shirt buttons done up, this was Jeremy Mark 2.0. He still squeezed in a question from Nina, who wanted to know about the rights of EU citizens living in post-Brexit UK, but he also managed a few gags of his own.
“Democracy,” he said. “Is an exciting and splendid thing and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
He was convincing no one and even as the light faded on his time as PM, Cameron wasn’t about to let him go.
“We’ve got on with it - had a resignation, nomination, competition and coronation. They haven’t even decided what the rules are. If they ever do get in, it will take them a year to work out where they are going to sit.”
Since he became PM back in 2010, Cameron noted that during successive PMQs he had been asked 5,500 questions, 179 of them from the current leader of the opposition. The master of the political sidestep he also admitted that he would leave it to others to work out how many he had answered.
Yet it wasn’t all school yard stuff.
In between thanking everyone for their kind regards, there were questions about Trident, Scottish independence and the NHS. Cameron duly answered them all, never once missing an opportunity to tell the House just one more time that under his watch the deficit has been cut by almost a third, there are 300,000 fewer people living in poverty, 2.5m more jobs, 10 per cent more spent on the NHS and nine million more apprenticeships.
So confidently did he get into his stride, that occasionally he forgot that this was his swan song.
When one MP asked about queue jumping for cataract operations, he promised to look into the issue carefully - this afternoon - and get back to him. The MP for Blackley and Broughton didn’t seem to mind and much like when someone has died most seemed content just to remember Cameron’s good points.
The only one not looking chipper was George Osborne. It was mostly likely his last PMQs as Chancellor, but unlike Cameron he was denied a triumphant farewell. For the most part he looked like he had just started a new school to find that none of his friends were in the same class. When that nervous smile slipped behind it was the face of a condemned man.
Perhaps only Dennis Skinner was more disgruntled. He had been prevented from asking a question, so we never got to hear what he thought of ‘Dodgy Dave’s surprisingly fast ejection from Downing Street. Although we could probably guess.
The dissection of Cameron’s time as PM, which began as soon as the referendum result was announced, will continue for years, decades even. Books will be written, documentaries made and history will ultimately judge, but yesterday, over the course of 30 minutes he did his damndest to leave one final good impression.
This was not the naval gazing PM who shot his career in the foot with a needless referendum, this was a statesman. And a cat lover.
There have been rumours Cameron is no fan of Whitehall’s favourite feline Larry the Cat. Not so, said the PM producing photographic evidence as proof.
“The rumour is that I don’t love Larry. I do. Sadly I can’t take Larry with me. He belongs to the house and the staff love him very much - as do I.”
Everyone who stood up wished him well, but perhaps the wisest words came from Conservative veteran Kenneth Clarke. He urged the man he once sacked as a special advisor, to stay “an active participant” in Parliament as Britain faces uncertain times. “We need his advice and statesmanship more than ever,” he added.
The former Chancellor was right, but it is almost certain that we will have o find that steady leadership elsewhere.
Adapting his famous line to Tony Blair back in 2005, he told the House “I was the future once.” And with that he was off.
Off to see the Queen and off to prepare his final statement outside Number 10. He will be missed. On both sides of the House.