Why Theresa May’s Final Big Speech Was A Fitting End To Her Zombie Premiership

Paul Waugh

“Words have consequences,” Theresa May told us, solemnly. Unfortunately, the 4,000 words she uttered in her final major speech as prime minister had precisely zero consequences.

That wasn’t just because she’s the lamest of lame duck leaders, unable to pull any levers of power.

It was because she’s so allergic to clarity and to controversy that she robbed herself of even the power of the bully pulpit.

Titled ‘The State of Politics’, her address at the Chatham House think-tank had been keenly anticipated, with some hoping she would use her final days in office to throw off the shackles of convention and say what she really thought.

In recent days, she’s certainly looked more relaxed than ever before, dancing to Abba and van Halen at a Henley festival, looking at ease at Wimbledon and cheering at Lords as the England cricket team won the World Cup.

When she started her speech, the signs were encouraging, as she told the audience this would “most likely be the last time I will speak at length as Prime Minister” and that she would “share some personal reflections on the state of politics in our country and around the world”.

Within minutes we rapidly learned that she wasn’t going to change the habit of a lifetime and throw caution to the wind.

She may indeed have “lived politics for half a century”, as she told us, from an envelope-stuffing schoolgirl to the highest office in the land. But living it and doing it effectively are two very different things indeed. May’s attempt to list her ‘legacy’ only served to show how thin it was.

The famous ‘Chatham House rule’ is that the contents of a private meeting can be revealed without identifying the speaker. 

Yet even if this speech had not been livestreamed, that rule was impossible because there were so many telltale evasions and Brexit blancmange that it could only have been made by the Rt Hon Theresa Mary May, MP. 

May is a singularly bad public speaker and performer but this effort was truly one of her worst. Instead of offering a stirring vision or stern warning to her successors, she went through the motions of a valedictory address that lacked any real insight or bite.

The central point was the power of compromise, yet there wasn’t even a hint of self-awareness that her main failing on taking office in 2016 was her own inability to reach out to opponents to construct a unifying version of Brexit.

Her early red lines, washed away by the reality of Brussels’s negotiating power, had doomed and defined her premiership as much as her disastrous snap election gamble. 

May’s attack on “absolutism” and those who mobilise their own “faction” sounded very much like a jibe at the hard Brexiteers in her own party. Her talk of the need for a “sustainable” Brexit sounded like a warning against Boris Johnson’s no-deal scenario.

But she couldn’t bring herself to go that bit further and be explicit about just who she meant.

In fact, afterwards No.10 actually briefed that “the speech wasn’t about individuals”, a surefire way to tone down news headlines, forcing journalists instead to rely on ‘veiled’ threats rather than real ones.

As for Brexit, she twice repeated her ill-fated soundbite that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

The biggest disappointment however was May’s steadfast refusal to be more specific about Donald Trump.

After his racist tweets telling US Congresswomen to “go back” to their country of origin, never mind his own attacks on her performance, she had plenty of reason to breach the usual conventions as Trump himself had done.

Her lines about “ill words” leading to “ill deeds”, “aggressive assertions”, “rancour and tribal bitterness”, a “coarsening of language” all felt like rebuffs to Trump.

Add in the “increasingly adversarial nature of international relations” and references to the Paris climate change and Iran nuclear deal and her direction seemed to be clear.

May even quoted President Eisenhower’s own defence of compromise, with his line that “the middle of the road is all of the usable surface...the extremes, right and left, are in the gutters”. Surely that was a suggestion that Trump himself had demeaned his office with gutter politics?

When asked directly in the following Q&A if she was referring to Trump, May didn’t have to directly single him out. She could have shown a lightness of touch and said “I’ll leave it to you to draw your conclusions about who I mean”, adding a tight smile. Instead she replied “this is a general observation that I have”. In other words, the president’s words didn’t have consequences. 

It’s often said that all political lives, especially those of prime ministers, end in failure.

But this was a chance for this most zombiefied of premiers to write her own obituary, and she fluffed it. When she left the stage one last time, it felt like a blessed relief - for her and for us.

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