Nothing became her, in her political life, not even the leaving of it. If this was Theresa May saying goodbye, she was not waving but drowning.
At some point, there must have been a meeting, a conversation. Let’s book a room, I’m going to do a speech, a valedictory address, no less, on “the state of politics internationally and in the UK”. I will have mere days left in power. I will be free to speak my mind, to pass into the public realm all the accumulated learning of my three long years in the highest office in the land.
The room was indeed booked. The crowd were called in. And then, there was nothing. These are meant to be the rare moments that last forever. In fact, in the last few days, one such moment has resurfaced. Ronald Reagan’s final remarks as president of the United States, a heart-rending testament to America, as the eternal home of the immigrant.
If this was meant to be May’s such moment, it was not so much that it was forgotten but that it was never remembered. It was forgotten before it happened.
She spoke in as grave a term as she could imagine about the coarsening of political language, the polarisation in public debate.
If any of it is worth remembering, it was for its sheer audacity.
Here was May, speaking in hushed tones about, “the enormous potential of politics, to serve your country, to make the world a better place”.
And she was right, but for the inconvenient reality that she has acted for three years in futile service of a project that can only make the world a worse place. She has sought to serve her country by suppressing her own certain knowledge that she will make it worse. She has served through a time that has certainly shown “the enormous potential of politics”, which is to say, its enormous potential to go wrong, to do harm, and the enormous difficulty of rescuing it when it does so.
She was, she said, “worried about the state of politics ... worried that the values on which all of our successes have been founded cannot be taken for granted”.
Liberal values, she said, took hundreds of years to establish. We have a responsibility to conserve them. “As a politician,” she said, “my decisions and actions have always been guided by that conviction.”
Which is all very well, apart from the inconvenient fact that it’s utter drivel. May leaves as her legacy a Conservative Party that is interested only in its self-preservation, and so has turned to Boris Johnson, to rescue its voters from the Faragist fringes to where she, as much as anyone else, has driven them.
She acknowledged, at one point, that “not every phrase I have ever used has been perfect”. A reference to, to take but one example, the “citizens of nowhere” remark in her first conference speech. Arguably, that has indeed been unfairly received. It was aimed primarily at tax-avoiding non-doms. It was not an acknowledgement that went anywhere near, say, the policy announced 24 hours before that speech, about making companies publish lists of foreign workers.
Neither was it an acknowledgement of her near decade-long obsession with immigration, the hostile environment policy, the Windrush scandal, the “Go Home” vans, driven around towns that were themselves already victims of racially motivated hostility.
The speech was meant as a warning to the world that she imagines is on its way, namely Boris and Trump World. But it was neither of those two men that stood outside Downing Street in 2017, quite dementedly sabre rattling at the European Union, for seeking to “interfere” in our election. “We cannot let the bureaucrats of Brussels run over us,” she said then, adopting the precise, divisive, vilifying language that was the direct cause of this country’s decision to break itself, on a rainy June day three years ago.
Those that have gone before her have a habit of revealing, in these final moments, all their accumulated statesmanship, or indeed states womanship. When they speak, we listen. If there was any point at all, to this peculiar event, it was merely to confirm what remains unchanged since her very first day: that Theresa May never had anything worth saying at all.