Theresa May’s farewell speech: What she said – and what she really meant

John Rentoul

What Theresa May said: This will most likely be the last time I will speak at length as prime minister and I would like today to share some personal reflections on the state of politics in our country and around the world.

What she really meant: You will be sorry when I’m gone.

What she said: I have lived politics for half a century.

What she meant: I am a narrow-minded Conservative loyalist – you may not like it but you’ll be sorry: wait until you see what’s coming next.

What she said: Social attitudes in our country and many other western countries have transformed in recent decades. There are more women in senior positions today than at any time in history.

What she meant: I will be succeeded by a posh white man. You will be sorry.

What she said: When I was born, it was a crime to be a gay man, legal to discriminate on the basis of sex or race, and casual bigotry was a socially acceptable fact of daily life. All that has changed – and greatly for the better.

What she meant: Most of those changes were brought about by Labour governments and as a narrow-minded Conservative loyalist I opposed some of them, but I’m happy to take credit for late-period establishment feminism.

What she said: Domestically and internationally, in substance and in tone, I am worried about the state of politics.

What she meant: Some people have been rather unkind to me.

What she said: It used to be asked of applicants at Conservative candidate selection meetings, “are you a conviction politician or are you a pragmatist?” I have never accepted the distinction.

What she meant: I was never a hard-line Thatcherite.

What she said: As a Conservative, I have never had any doubt about what I believe in – security, freedom and opportunity ... I didn’t write about those convictions in pamphlets or make many theoretical speeches about them. I have sought to put them into action.

What she meant: There was a time when this kind of modest practical outlook was 20 points ahead in the polls, but you’re a fickle lot.

What she said: Getting things done rather than simply getting them said requires some qualities that have become unfashionable of late.

What she meant: I am the unfortunate victim of a change in fashion. Just like James Callaghan, complaining about a “sea change”.

What she said: One of them is a willingness to compromise. That does not mean compromising your values.

What she meant: It’s what Tony Blair said and they elected him three times. Where did I go wrong?

What she said: Persuasion, teamwork and a willingness to make mutual concessions are needed to achieve an optimal outcome. That is politics at its best. The alternative is a politics of winners and losers, of absolutes and of perpetual strife – and that threatens us all.

What she meant: My memoirs are going to be the biggest ever exercise in rewriting history.

What she said: 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.

What she meant: I can tell you, it doesn’t work. I said “Brexit means Brexit” and “money, laws and borders” until I bored myself and I did not get my way in the end.

What she said: This is coarsening our public debate. Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others.

What she meant: At least I was always polite, unlike some people. And I am not bitter.

What she said: This absolutism is not confined to British politics ... We see it in the increasingly adversarial nature of international relations, which some view as a zero-sum game where one country can only gain if others lose. And where power, unconstrained by rules, is the only currency of value.

What she meant: Donald Trump.

What she said: The sustainability of modern politics derives not from an uncompromising absolutism but rather through the painstaking marking out of a common ground.

What she meant: The third way, Tony Blair called it.

What she said: The far left – including the leadership of our once proud British Labour Party – would argue that we should scrap an open market altogether.

What she meant: As you know, I only have the best interests of the Labour Party at heart.

What she said: 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.

What she meant: Nobody could have seen that coming.

What she said: Eisenhower once wrote: “People talk about the middle of the road as though it were unacceptable ... The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”

What she meant: The only remotely colourful phrase in this speech is a quotation from a half-forgotten US president. Having been a fairly right-wing Tory all my life, I am now reinventing myself as a centrist.

What she said: For the future, if we can recapture the spirit of common purpose – as I believe we must – then we can be optimistic about what together we can achieve.

What she meant: We are all doomed.