Theresa May used the last major speech as prime minister to take a bitter swipe at the hardline Brexiteers in her own party who brought her premiership to an early end.
Ms May accused opponents of her EU withdrawal agreement of adopting a polarised “winner takes all” approach which had prevented her from resolving the Brexit impasse and delivering the deal which she believed most voters wanted.
In an apparent warning to likely successor Boris Johnson not to impose a no-deal outcome which opinion polls suggest is opposed by a majority of voters, the PM warned that a successful Brexit must involve “some kind of compromise” if it is to be sustainable in the long term and bring the country back together.
She cautioned against a drift to the right by the Conservatives after her departure, saying that “all great political parties” should be “firmly rooted in the common ground of politics” and quoting Eisenhower’s dictum that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”
And she made clear her sense of being let down by MPs who voted down her agreement on three occasions - even after she caved in to demands from members of the eurosceptic European Research Group to set a timetable for her departure.
“I am deeply disappointed I haven’t been able to deliver Brexit,” she said. “ I did everything I could to do that. I put me own job on the line in order to do that.
“I was told that if I say I would stand down, the votes would come behind the deal. I said I would stand down. The votes didn’t come. That’s politics.”
Her comments came as chancellor Philip Hammond said he was “terrified” by ERG chair Jacob Rees-Mogg’s view of no-deal Brexit - and suggested that he might play an influential role in a future Johnson administration.
Responding to an article in which Mr Rees-Mogg said no-deal could boost the UK economy, Mr Hammond tweeted: “Happy to debate scale of negative impact of no-deal on the economy - but terrifying that someone this close to a potential future government can think we’d actually be better off by adding barriers to access to our largest market.”
Speaking to the Chatham House think tank, Ms May warned of the growth of populism which threatened the liberal values of democracy, the open market economy, free speech, the rule of law and human rights.
”An inability to combine principles with pragmatism and make a compromise when required seems to have driven our whole political discourse down the wrong path,” she said.
“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.
“This is coarsening our public debate. Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others. Aggressive assertions are made without regard to the facts or the complexities of an issue, in an environment where the most extreme views tend to be the most noticed.
“This descent of our debate into rancour and tribal bitterness – and in some cases even vile abuse at a criminal level - is corrosive for the democratic values which we should all be seeking to uphold.” Ms May said she had negotiated the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU last November in a spirit of pragmatism and compromise and still believe that this approach was the only way to resolve the Brexit impasse.
“Whatever path we take must be sustainable for the long-term – so that delivering Brexit brings our country back together,” she said.
“That has to mean some kind of compromise.”
Theresa May spoke at Chatham House (REUTERS)
Looking back to the votes in which Tory rebels inflicted the three defeats which destroyed her plan, she said: “I believe the strength of the deal I negotiated was that it delivered on the vote of the referendum to leave the European Union, while also responding to the concerns of those who had voted to Remain.
“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.
“And when opinions have become polarised – and driven by ideology - it becomes incredibly hard for a compromise to become a rallying point.”
Aides later insisted that Ms May did not have any specific individuals in mind when making her warnings of the dangers of populist politics.
But they were widely interpreted at Westminster as a rebuke to Brexiteers within her own party and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
She condemned an “absolutist” political approach which “refuses to accept that other points of view are reasonable, ascribes bad motives to those taking those different views (and) views anything less than 100 per cent of what you want all the time as evidence of failure, when success in fact means achieving the optimum outcome in any given circumstance”.
On the international stage, she warned of a “festering” populism of the far left and far right in Europe and beyond, reflected in “the increasingly adversarial nature of international relations, which some view as a zero-sum game where one country can only gain if others lose. And where power, unconstrained by rules, is the only currency of value”.
She restated her opposition to President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the international deal on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Calling on the international community to protect both agreements, she warned the unravelling of the 2015 Paris deal would “damage us all and our planet”.
Ms May insisted that the UK’s “special relationship” with the US would remain, “regardless of who is in Number 10 or who is in the White House”.
But in an apparent rebuke to Trump, who has repeatedly disparaged international bodies like the UN and Nato, she said: “What I would say to all of the people of America is that there isn’t a dichotomy between having a country and an economy which are strong and being part of multilateral institutions. Being part of a framework of rules that operates can be an important part of helping countries to maintain their strength and the strength of their economies. Ms May was challenged over whether she had contributed to the “coarsening” of debate by attacking “citizens of nowhere” and promising a “red, white and blue Brexit”.
She recognised that she had been wrong to refer to EU migrants as “queue jumpers”, adding: “I don’t claim that I got every single phrase I used right, but I think all of us in politics do have to think carefully about how we express things and about the type of debate we have”.