Theresa May has delivered a thinly veiled attack on hardline Brexiters and Donald Trump in her last major speech as British prime minister, warning that anger, entrenched views and a lack of compromise is harming political discourse.
Mrs May, who is set to resign next Wednesday, said in a speech to the Chatham House think-tank that she was “worried about the state of politics” because of the “absolutes and perpetual strife” resulting from a lack of “pragmatism” — a coded reference to MPs she had hoped would support her Brexit withdrawal agreement.
“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,” she said.
Mrs May made three attempts to pass a Brexit withdrawal agreement earlier this year, but on each occasion groups of MPs from her own party were unwilling to accept the trade-offs she had negotiated.
The prime minister defended her Brexit strategy, blaming her failure to pass the deal she negotiated with Brussels on MPs who were unwilling to compromise. In an apparent reference to diehard Remainer and Brexiter MPs, she said opinions had become “polarised and driven by ideology”.
“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 added that she believes leaving the bloc with a deal remains the best way out of the Brexit impasse.
In her speech the prime minister also made several tacit attacks on the US president, noting that “this absolutism is not confined to British politics”. In a possible reference to Donald Trump’s latest tweets — in which he suggested that several democratic congresswoman should “go back” to “where they came from” — Mrs May argued that “words have consequences”.
“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.”
The prime minister referred to several international organisations that Mr Trump has tried to undermine, such as the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. She noted that achieving both agreements relied on “painstaking pragmatism and compromise”.
Although she did not explicitly refer to the Conservative party leadership contest or her likely successor Boris Johnson, Mrs May expressed concern about politicians “making promises you cannot keep” or “telling people what you think they want to hear”.
“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,” she said.
David Lammy, the Labour MP, described the prime minister’s speech on Twitter as: “Hollow words from a PM who spent her years in office promoting [Nigel] Farage’s agenda with populist rhetoric, insulting EU citizens as ‘queue-jumpers’, and saying internationalists are ‘citizens of nowhere’.
“We’ll never forget the ‘Go Home’ vans you put on our streets.”