It was a speech aimed at shifting attention away from the failure to complete the primary task of Theresa May’s premiership, but the delivery was more effective than the words.
The Prime Minister’s tears at the end of her resignation statement outside 10 Downing Street weren’t scripted, or even expected; they provoked a quiet gasp among watching journalists who had grown used to three years of mechanical repetition from the woman branded the ‘Maybot’.
Her friends and allies will hope the abject, final display of emotion might soften May’s image and win her some sympathy.
But from the start, this Prime Minister only made life more difficult for herself. We never got to see the May agenda for the country, other than that glimpse in her speech about tackling the “burning injustices”. Her critics are right to point out how at odds with her own record that rhetoric was, nowhere more so than on the Windrush scandal, a product of policies she championed at the Home Office.
Despite her aspirations, it will be leaving the EU - or rather, failing to - that defines May’s time in office, and rather than preparing the country for the most difficult task it has faced for half a century, she chose to define it in the most inane terms: “Brexit means Brexit”.
She selected people to be the public face of negotiations in Brussels who had made clear their lack of interest in, and lack of understanding of how the EU worked. And she ruled out at the earliest opportunity the kind of Brexit that might have won the support of a majority in parliament. An unnecessary election was turned into a disaster by a manifesto and a strategy written by a small circle of the Prime Minister’s advisers, who alienated much of her party.
By using up the past three years on a Brexit deal she ensured was impossible to deliver, the Prime Minister may have closed off the avenue to any deal at all, radicalising Brexiteers and Remainers to only accept the purest solution to the messiest problem.
When they’re revealed tomorrow night, the results of this week’s European elections will show for the largest part of the British public, Brexit now means what Nigel Farage wants it to mean, because May had the chance to forge a more subtle definition, but chose not to. The most affecting part of her speech yesterday, more so even than her tears, was when she quoted words of advice to her from her constituent, the late Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust by organising the Kindertransport. “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word,” he told her “Life depends on compromise.”
How to reconcile those words with the fact it took two years from when Article 50 was triggered from May’s government to reach out to opposition parties and unions in a bid to find a middle way on Brexit?
The Prime Minister planted the seeds of division in her first days in office, clearing out the remnants of David Cameron’s government in one of the most brutal reshuffles ever seen.
George Osborne probably had to go, but May also got rid of senior ministers who she eventually had to turn to for help: Michael Gove, who she asked to come back to Cabinet and defended her approach on Brexit until the end; and Nicky Morgan, who became one of the most troublesome rebels on the Tory benches before joining the effort to build bridges between Brexiteers and Remainers.
At her first party conference as leader, May then took her purge of the Cameron project - the one that took the Tories back into power after 13 years, then won their first majority in more than 20 years - from staffing to ideology. In the confused, uncertain months after the referendum, Brexit Britain was in search of an identity. She gave it one when she told the party conference in Birmingham that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. It confirmed, from the top of government, that the divide opening up in the country should be seen as a ‘culture war’ - and in the eyes of many, May had picked a side.
Brexit wasn’t impossible to deliver in 2016, but May will leave office having manoeuvred her party and the country into a near-impossible position, at the cost of huge anger on both sides of the divide. Her successor is likely to be someone even less willing to conciliate and compromise. Their task is now harder and their options more limited than the ones that faced her when she walked through the door of 10 Downing Street.