‘You know what some people call us? The nasty party.’ How May revealed herself through her speeches

From promising to deal with the country’s ‘burning injustices’ to ostracising the ‘citizens of nowhere’, her rhetoric has consistently come back to bite her

John Rentoul
Friday 24 May 2019 19:21 BST
Theresa May's full speech as she announces her resignation

Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us? The nasty party.” Theresa May was Conservative Party chairman – that’s what they called it then – in 2002 when she delivered the words that would echo down the years after her.

She saw herself as a moderniser, determined to distance the party from the uncaring caricature she thought it had unfairly acquired under Margaret Thatcher. She came back to the theme in her words in Downing Street today, claiming her record showed what “a decent, moderate and patriotic Conservative government, on the common ground of British politics”, could achieve.

As ever, she tried to assert that there was more to her government than Brexit, but that turned out not to be true and when we failed to leave the EU there was nothing left.

It was the same theme to which she laid claim – to praise, that time – when she arrived at No 10, proclaiming a mission beyond Brexit to promote the union between all of our citizens: “That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.”

We heard quite a lot about stop-and-search powers for the police in the years since, including Sadiq Khan as mayor of London saying they were needed to prevent stabbings. But almost nothing about the education of white working-class boys.

That was the speech in which she said: “If you’re just managing, I want to address you directly. I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

It is easy to forget now how popular this change of tone was from the smoother, more entitled rhetoric of David Cameron and George Osborne. However, it was when she pushed this contrast just a little too far in her first party conference speech in October 2016 that she provoked the first significant backlash.

She said: “Too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But 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.”

Many pro-Europeans took this as a personal insult, a suggestion that they weren’t properly patriotic, and others thought it was straightforwardly xenophobic. It contributed to the growing partisanship between Leavers and Remainers – a divide that was quickly more important to people than past party identification.

But it did her popularity no harm, tempting her to go back to the lectern in Downing Street to call an election with some ill-judged words: “Our opponents believe because the government's majority is so small, that our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course. They are wrong.”

This was the first time she asserted what would happen as if a fact, only to be flatly contradicted by forces outside her control. There was a premonition of that during the election campaign when she said, in answer to a question from Christopher Hope of The Daily Telegraph: “Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed.”

From the shock of the exit poll announcement on 8 June 2017, she was doomed. It has taken a surprisingly long time for that defeat to work itself to its conclusion. No one can remember what she said in Downing Street when she went back in, still as prime minister by the skin of her teeth and a phone call to Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Except that she forgot to say sorry to her party and to the Tory MPs who lost their seats as a result of her terrible campaign.

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By September she was back on the continent, in Florence, trying to rescue the Brexit talks, and declaring: “When this chapter of our European history is written, it will be remembered… not for a relationship that ended but a new partnership that began. A partnership of interests, a partnership of values; a partnership of ambition for a shared future.”

That turned out not to be right either.

At her party conference speech in Manchester she lost her voice, so no one can remember anything else about that speech except that a prankster handed her a mock P45.

Admittedly, she defied expectations by succeeding in negotiating the first stage of a Brexit deal with the EU by the end of that year, and kept the DUP on board. But the agreement to guarantee an open border in Ireland, known as the backstop, contained the seeds of the deal’s destruction.

It was a heroic achievement to conclude the deal in November last year, but her statement in the House of Commons admitted that the cabinet was reluctant to sign it off:

“The cabinet has just had a long, detailed and impassioned debate on the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline of the political declaration… The choices before us were difficult, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop, but the collective decision of the cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline of the political declaration.”

Instead of returning from Brussels claiming a negotiating triumph – which she could have done without too much forcing of the facts – her message to MPs was essentially that it was a terrible deal but that it was the best possible in a difficult situation so please could they vote for it.

But that was it. She asked MPs to vote for the deal three times. The last time, on the day she had always insisted the UK would be leaving the EU, 29 March, she was only 30 votes short of the majority she needed, but it was too late.

Today, she gave one of her most affecting speeches. She told the story of Sir Nicholas Winton, one of her constituents in Maidenhead. He saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport. “At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice. He said, ‘Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’”

Too late, too late. It is too late now to start putting persuasive anecdotes into her speeches. And her attempt to compromise with the Labour MPs whose support she was always going to need to make Brexit work came much too late.

Finally, there was nothing left to say: “I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honour of my life to hold – the second female prime minister but certainly not the last. I do so with no ill will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.”

Her voice broke and her face crumpled. She had had her human moments, losing her voice at her 2017 party conference and dancing on to the stage last year, but they mostly stood out because she was so closed and controlled the rest of the time. This was her last and most human moment of all.

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