Watching it live, the speech had the quality of one of those nightmares in which you find yourself retaking your A-levels aged 34, or about to go on stage to play Hamlet without a clue about the lines. Except it wasn’t you it was happening to, it was Theresa May. And worse for her, if not for her audience, it was really, genuinely happening.
The speech, to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference, started confidently enough. The inevitable and tedious personal journey stuff. The apology for the disastrous snap election campaign, which had wiped out her majority and her political authority at a stroke.
But then it all went wrong. First a comedian dressed as a Spad showed up to hand her a P45 (“Boris asked me to give you this”) which, bafflingly, she meekly accepted. Then the coughing fit, which during the biggest speech of her life temporarily rendered the Prime Minister incapable of that most basic of political skills, reading from an autocue. And then, in the final indignity, the lettering on the wall behind her began to fall off. “Building a country that works or everyone”, indeed.
It was horrifyingly, cringemakingly awful to watch, of course. But it was also, let’s be honest, funny: live coverage of hubris meeting nemesis, like that bit on The X-Factor when someone discovers in front of six million people that they can’t actually sing. And so I was surprised by the suggestion from some quarters, not all of them Tory, that our main response should be one of sympathy — and that if you weren’t feeling it, your reaction was somehow inhuman.
We’re hearing those same exhortations to feel sympathy for May again now. Suggestions are made that we’ll miss her, once she’s gone. How, as the Johnson premiership looms, could we not feel sympathetic towards the woman who we’re told so often was guided simply by her sense of duty, and who tried her damnedest to prevent the horror of no deal?
And once again, I’m not feeling it. Because Theresa May wasn’t some passive victim of historical forces. She’s the one who created this mess.
It was May, after all, who gave us the line – one she clearly never believed – that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, encouraging us to believe that cutting all trade ties with our biggest market was something that might actually be somehow good. For all the talk of a new centre ground in British politics, she spent her premiership fuelling Brexiteer extremism, trying to reconcile the irreconcilables, all the while refusing – during a minority government – to even consider reaching across the aisle until it was far too late.
It was she who encouraged the idea that Remainers were traitors; that opposition was illegitimate; that “citizens of the world” were “citizens of nowhere” whose loyalties were inherently somehow suspect. “Words have consequences,” she said in her valedictory speech at Chatham House this week. She might well have been talking to herself.
Worse than May’s words were her policies. Her refusal to guarantee the rights of European citizens in Britain left millions of our friends and neighbours feeling adrift and insecure, betrayed by their adopted home, and had the neat side-effect of ensuring similar treatment for British citizens in Europe. Her determination to cut net migration at all costs has ruined lives and separated families. Why, exactly, are we required to feel sympathy for a woman who showed so little to those whose lives were wrecked by her policies?
May’s premiership has been a failure. She is unlikely to get a flattering write-up in the history books. But she will live on in wealth and comfort in a country that she can call home. The same cannot be said of those affected by the decisions she has made.
That conference speech was humiliating for May, as was so much that has happened to her since. But she was a bad prime minister, whose policies have caused literally millions of people untold pain. What comes next may well be worse. But, no: we should not feel sympathy for Theresa May.