LONDON — Britain’s Conservative Party was choosing two finalists on Wednesday in the contest to replace Boris Johnson, as the divisive, unrepentant leader ended his final appearance in Parliament as prime minister with the words “Hasta la vista, baby.”
Johnson, who quit July 7 after months of ethics scandals but remains caretaker leader until the party elects his successor, faced derisive opposition politicians and weary Conservatives at his last Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons.
It was a downbeat departure, with supportive Conservative backbenchers lobbing praise and opposition politicians offering variations on “good riddance.”
Johnson extolled what he called his accomplishments — leading Britain out of the European Union and through COVID-19, and supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion — and declared: “Mission largely accomplished, for now,” before departing with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “hasta la vista” catchphrase from “Terminator 2.”
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said: “I will miss the delusion.”
Johnson reprised his long-running characterization of Starmer as “Captain Hindsight” over COVID, and called him “a great pointless human bollard.”
Conservative MPs give Boris Johnson a standing ovation as he leaves the Commons after his final PMQs. pic.twitter.com/ST99vpOdb7
— LBC (@LBC) July 20, 2022
Parliament adjourns for the summer on Thursday, and Conservatives will spend the next six weeks electing a new leader, who will also become prime minister.
Conservative lawmakers will hold a final elimination vote Wednesday afternoon to cut the field of three remaining candidates down to two.
Former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt are battling for the run-off spots. The two finalists will go to a vote by all 180,000 members of the Conservative Party, with a winner scheduled to be announced September 5.
Sunak has led every round of voting so far and is highly likely to make the final two. Truss, who is favored by the party’s right wing, and Mordaunt, who has scored highly in polls of party members, are wooing lawmakers in an attempt to clinch the other spot.
Even though Truss has come third in every vote so far, bookmakers say she is favorite to win the contest because she is gaining momentum.
Johnson’s Downing Street operation is reportedly running an “anyone but Rishi” campaign, accusing the former finance minister of orchestrating a cabinet revolt that brought him down this month after many scandals including “Partygate.”
“I’m not following this thing particularly closely,” the prime minister said of the Tory race, to laughter.
But he praised Sunak’s economic management during the pandemic, and said that any one of the three, “like some household detergent, would wipe the floor” with Labour.
The bitter campaign has exposed deep divisions in the Conservative Party at the end of Johnson’s scandal-tarnished three-year reign. Opponents have branded Sunak a “socialist” for raising taxes in response to the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Sunak has hit back that his rivals are peddling economic “fairy tales.”
But Johnson gave the contenders some words of advice, urging them to “stay close to the Americans, stick up for the Ukrainians, stick up for freedom and democracy everywhere.”
“Cut taxes and deregulate where you can to make this the greatest place to live and invest… focus on the road ahead but always remember to check the rearview mirror.
“And remember above all it’s not Twitter that counts, it’s the people that sent us here.”
The contenders are all trying to distance themselves from Johnson, whose term in office began boldly in 2019 with a vow to “get Brexit done” and a resounding election victory, but is now ending in disgrace.
He clung to office through months of scandals over his finances and his judgment, refusing to resign when he was fined by police over government parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules. He finally quit after one scandal too many — appointing a politician accused of sexual misconduct — drove his ministers to resign en masse.
Despite remaining prime minister, he has largely disappeared from the scene, even as Britain faces a summer cost-of-living crisis and labor discontent as inflation hits 9.4%.
Johnson did not attend any government emergency meetings about the heat wave that brought temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) to Britain this week. Last week he took a ride in a Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jet, with “Top Gun”-style footage released by his office, then threw a weekend party at Chequers, the country house that comes with the prime minister’s job.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who represents the opposition Labour Party, accused Johnson of wanting to “become Tom Cruise” and urged him to resign immediately.
“We need a full-time prime minister looking after our country rather than somebody who’s checked out,” Khan said.