Spirit of political compromise urged by May in Chatham House

Outgoing British PM condemns ‘politics of winners and losers’ as threat to everybody

Theresa May: “Our politics retreated back into its binary pre-referendum positions – a winner-takes-all approach to leaving or remaining.” Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Theresa May: “Our politics retreated back into its binary pre-referendum positions – a winner-takes-all approach to leaving or remaining.” Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

 

Theresa May has warned of a coarsening of the political discourse in Britain and around the world, calling on politicians to rediscover the value of compromise. In her last major speech as British prime minister, she made thinly veiled swipes at Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, although she did not mention either by name.

Speaking at the foreign policy think tank Chatham House, Mrs May said a coarser political discourse did not simply create an unpleasant atmosphere but changed the basis on which politics is conducted.

“Words have consequences – and ill words that go unchallenged are the first step on a continuum towards ill deeds – towards a much darker place where hatred and prejudice drive not only what people say but also what they do,” she said.

She said that “getting things done rather than simply getting them said” required a willingness to compromise and she expressed frustration at her failure to win parliamentary approval. But she said the alternative to a politics of compromise is “a politics of winners and losers, of absolutes and of perpetual strife – and that threatens us all”.

Johnson and backstop

Mrs May was speaking two days after Mr Johnson said the Northern Ireland backstop must be removed from the withdrawal agreement in its entirety, rejecting changes such as a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism as inadequate. 

Mr Johnson has declined to rule out suspending parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit but the House of Lords on Wednesday approved an amendment designed to block such a move. MPs will on Thursday debate the amendment to a Northern Ireland Bill that would require the government to come to parliament every two weeks in September and October to update MPs on progress towards restoring the Stormont institutions.

The Alternative Arrangements Commission, a non-governmental group dominated by Conservative Brexiteers, will publish its final report on Thursday. It will propose alternatives to the backstop to keep the Border open and will include a draft protocol to replace or sit alongside the Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement.

Pre-referendum positions

Mrs May defended the backstop as a means of guaranteeing the Belfast Agreement after Brexit and she insisted that her Brexit deal represented a sensible way of delivering on the 2016 referendum result.

“Most people across our country had a preference for getting it done with a deal. And I believe the strength of the deal I negotiated was that it delivered on the vote of the referendum to leave the European Union, while also responding to the concerns of those who had voted to remain. The problem was that when it came time for parliament to ratify the deal, our politics retreated back into its binary pre-referendum positions – a winner-takes-all approach to leaving or remaining,” she said.

The prime minister displayed a flash of bitterness over the fact that her decision to sacrifice her own position had not been enough to get the withdrawal agreement through parliament.

“I was told if I stand down, the votes would come,” she said. 

“They didn’t come. That’s politics.”