Theresa May’s speech extols virtues she herself lacked in office
PM’s secretiveness and obstinacy may be dwarfed by successor’s debased rhetoric
British prime minister Theresa May: under a Boris Johnson premiership, the country could begin to look more fondly on her quieter virtues. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
It was hard to find fault with Theresa May’s plea for a more civil political discourse and her hymn to the virtues of compromise at Chatham House on Wednesday. Apart from the fact that it was she who was delivering the message.
“It means being driven by, and when necessary standing up for, your values and convictions. But doing so in the real world – in the arena of public life – where others are making their own case, pursuing their own interests,” she said.
“And where persuasion, teamwork and a willingness to make mutual concessions are needed to achieve an optimal outcome. That is politics at its best.”
It is also an excellent description of what May failed to do throughout a premiership characterised by secretiveness, obstinacy and an unparalleled incapacity to make the case for her Brexit deal. When she took office, May showed no enthusiasm for compromise or even for conventional human decency, sacking former ministerial colleagues with vindictive relish.
She allowed her two grim sentinels, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, to humiliate and bully ministers and officials until she sacked them as part of the price of her own survival after the disastrous 2017 general election. And in her first speech as prime minister to the Conservative party conference, she used one ugly phrase after another to sketch out a mean-spirited, divisive vision of Britain, declaring that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere, you don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”.
The 2017 election and the loss of the Conservative majority at Westminster offered May a chance to pivot towards a Brexit deal based on compromise with opposition parties. Instead she waited two more years to reach across the aisle to Labour, by which time her own political authority was already spent.
Noise and colour
May is no doubt sincere in her late embrace of the virtue of compromise and even before Wednesday’s speech she had become an eloquent advocate for not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Next week, when Boris Johnson will almost certainly take her place in Downing Street, Britain could enter a political period when the language is more debased and the rhetoric more divisive than ever.
Weary of the noise and colour of a Johnson premiership, the country could begin to look more fondly on the quieter virtues of May. But it will be the late-blooming champion of compromise that will be missed rather than the stubborn, unimaginative prime minister she was for most of the last three years.