Theresa May’s premiership, particularly its second, post-2017 election phase, has been punctuated by speeches that bore at the very best a tenuous relationship to political reality. Today she provided a surreal, at times barely believable full stop in the shape of a valedictory speech that posed far more questions than it answered.
Addressing an audience at Chatham House, May offered a lengthy – and wholly uncharacteristic – defence of compromise in politics. She bemoaned the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic, criticised the creep of absolutist language into political discourse, attacked nations whose governments treat diplomacy as a “zero-sum game”, warned that “words have consequences”, and urged political leaders of all ideological persuasions to seek consensus in the centre ground.
All of which, of course, is perfectly sensible advice. It was exactly the sort of speech a prime minister could and should have made after losing their majority. The problem for May, however, is that the disastrous course her premiership has taken since she lost hers in 2017 is in no small part a result of her having committed, repeatedly, all the sins she proscribed this afternoon.
That goes as much for her stint at the Home Office, where she boasted of creating the now infamous hostile environment and warned that an illegal immigrant could not be deported because he owned a pet cat, to her time in Downing Street, where her rhetoric was similarly bilious, and her approach to compromise, especially on Brexit, was often to browbeat the other side into agreeing with her starting position.
Afterwards, this glaring contradiction between her rhetoric and her actions was put to May by most of the people who endured her speech first-hand. Though she acknowledged there had been times when she had failed to live up to the standards she has belatedly set for her colleagues in public life, there was little by way of contrition. Take her criticism of those who argued that she should have facilitated a no-deal exit on 29 March – May did not acknowledge the fact that, until the eleventh hour, she had made the same argument.
So what was the point? Was it a coded challenge to, or criticism of, her likely successor Boris Johnson, or for that matter Donald Trump? May offered a fairly lukewarm denial that it was, but in reality that is the only plausible reading to be made. But even if Johnson fails to pass May’s tests for decency in political life, as appears likely, then this speech won’t exculpate her. Instead, it will form another plank of the by now towering body of evidence that the prime minister is unwilling and unable to accept her culpability for creating those circumstances.