Theresa May hit out at the growing “uncompromising absolutism” of politics as she reflected on her failure to deliver Brexit in her final major speech as Prime Minister.
In what is set to be her valedictory address, May called for political discussion to move from the extreme fringes, and warned that “words have consequences”.
She once again expressed regret and not being able to get a Brexit deal through parliament, but claimed others had not been as willing to compromise as she had.
“I put my own job on the line”, she said, adding: “I was told that if I said I would stand down then the votes would come behind the deal. I said I would stand down and I am doing so. The votes didn’t come. That’s politics.”
Much of May’s speech focused on the rise of “absolutism”, and she warned that populists viewed the world “through the prism of ‘us’ and ‘them’”.
She added: “Today an inability to combine principles with pragmatism and make a compromise when required seems to have driven our whole political discourse down the wrong path.
“It has led to what is in effect a form of ‘absolutism’ – one which believes that if you simply assert your view loud enough and long enough you will get your way in the end or that mobilising your own faction is more important than bringing others with you.”
Yet some of May’s own words during her premiership were seen as fuelling these views.
In her first Conservative party conference speech as Prime Minister in 2016, she claimed people who see themselves as “a citizen of the world” are in face “a citizen of nowhere”.
In November 2018, she referred to EU citizens who had come to the UK under freedom of movement rules as “queue jumpers” – a phrase she later retracted.
When these examples were put to May, she replied: “Has every sort of phrase I’ve used always been as perfect as it should be? No. There will be phrases that people will have interpreted in different ways from what was intended.”
In her speech, May also hit out at politicians “making promises you cannot keep, or by just telling people what you think they want to hear.”
When asked if she was referencing Boris Johnson, the man most likely to replace her as PM, in her speech, May replied: “No, this is a general observation.”
May will stand down as Prime Minister on Wednesday 24 July, with her successor having been announced a day earlier.