Seconds after her emotional address to the nation in Downing Street yesterday morning, the Prime Minister’s first words to her staff were: ‘I’m sorry.’
When Theresa May headed out of the door of Number 10 yesterday to acknowledge that her political career, like so many others, had ended in failure, she had been determined to keep her emotions in check.
But her voice started to weaken as she told of her pride at having been Britain’s ‘second female Prime Minister’, and there was no disguising the tears as she spoke of her ‘enduring gratitude’ for the chance to ‘serve the country I love’.
It was hardly surprising given the momentous circumstances and the inevitable frustration at having to relinquish power before achieving her ambition of leading Britain out of the EU.
After Prime Minister Theresa May’s emotional address to the nation in Downing Street Friday morning, her first words to her staff were: ‘I’m sorry’
But she was annoyed with herself. Indeed, she and her aides have been irritated by ‘sexist and inaccurate’ accounts in recent days claiming she has wept at meetings about her future.
As she came back in through the famous black door and tried to compose herself, she greeted applauding staff with the words: ‘I’m sorry.’
One close aide replied with feeling: ‘It’s not you who should be apologising, Prime Minister.’
In her speech yesterday Mrs May said she was leaving ‘with no ill will’. But allies are bitter at the way in which Eurosceptic MPs and ministers angling for her job have conspired to bring her down – apparently unconcerned about the potential damage to the party and the prospects for delivering Brexit.
I hope the people who had a hand in it are feeling guilty,’ said one. ‘They have made a huge miscalculation.’
Mrs May was then joined by her devoted husband Philip, who had watched her valedictory speech from outside the door of No11, keeping out of camera shot.
As she came back in through the famous black door and tried to compose herself, she greeted applauding staff with the words: ‘I’m sorry.’ One close aide replied with feeling: ‘It’s not you who should be apologising, Prime Minister’
The couple headed for Mrs May’s modest private office where she spent a few minutes responding to messages from friends and world leaders.
Then, the Prime Minister went upstairs to Downing Street’s famous Pillared Room to address her loyal team of 40 or so special advisers, most of whom will leave No10 with her in July.
This time it was her audience’s turn to shed a tear or two as she paid tribute to her husband and her chief-of-staff Gavin Barwell and spoke about what the job had meant to her.
‘It was a bit emotional but it was a nice moment,’ said one onlooker. ‘Away from the glare of the cameras she spoke about just how much it had meant to her.
‘It was typical of her that, on an enormously difficult day for her, she took the time to come and talk to us and give a speech that left everyone in the room coming away feeling a bit better.’
Mrs May was then joined by her devoted husband Philip (left), who had watched her valedictory speech from outside the door of No11, keeping out of camera shot
Did she hang on to avoid having a shorter tenure than Brown?
Theresa May will narrowly avoid taking the title of shortest-lived prime minister of recent times.
Her decision to remain in office until a successor is elected means she will beat Gordon Brown’s tenure of two years and 319 days.
Had Mrs May walked out of Downing Street yesterday, she would have served four fewer days than Mr Brown. She will now be able to notch up a few weeks more than that, probably leaving in early or mid-July.
Journalist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris has speculated that Mrs May’s consistent refusal to quit may have been linked with wanting to avoid this situation. He told Sky News: ‘I know this sounds a frivolous point, but I don’t think it is. She’ll overtake Gordon Brown – I think that’s important to leaders. She doesn’t want to be right near the bottom.’
The shortest ever tenure for a PM was the 119 days in 1827 of George Canning, who died in office. Robert Walpole’s 20 years, 314 days is the longest.
Philip, who Mrs May describes as her ‘rock’, had been at her side throughout a critical week in which she made a final desperate gamble on Brexit, despite allies warning it could finish her off.
The Prime Minister and her team realised the game was up on Wednesday afternoon after her decision to offer Labour MPs concessions on a second referendum was mauled by MPs in the Commons and sparked a backlash from the Cabinet.
She gathered her inner circle in her office that evening – some hours before Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom quit – and told them she had reached the end.
Mrs May then began work on her farewell address with the help of trusted speechwriter Keelan Carr before going to her regular audience with the Queen, where she told the Monarch of her intentions.
Public requests from Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid to discuss the Brexit deal were studiously ignored that evening – allies of Mrs May believed they were simply trying to burnish their leadership credentials.
And, in any case, she had made up her mind. But the ticking clock could not be ignored.
She gathered her inner circle in her office Wednesday evening – some hours before Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom quit – and told them she had reached the end
Backbench shop steward Sir Graham Brady was due to see the PM on Friday morning to demand a timetable for her departure in response to the calls from furious Tory MPs.
Mrs May spent Thursday evening in her Maidenhead constituency after casting her vote and carrying out a round of campaigning in the European Parliament elections she had never wanted to hold.
She and Mr May then returned to Downing Street early yesterday morning, entering by a back door in the vain hope of avoiding the cameras before her big moment.
The meeting with Sir Graham was businesslike. Flanked by Mr Barwell and Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis, Mrs May went through her plans.
After her meeting with staff, the PM and her husband got back in the car and returned to their Berkshire home. This weekend they will relax at Chequers, the PM’s country retreat
‘UK’s Schindler’ taught May about compromise
Theresa May yesterday recalled a constituent’s advice.
She told how the late Sir Nicholas Winton, the man hailed as ‘Britain’s Schindler’ for saving hundreds of children from Nazi tyranny, taught her compromise is ‘not a dirty word’.
‘He was right,’ said Mrs May. ‘As we strive to find the compromises we need in our politics… we must remember what brought us here.’ But Sir Nicholas’s daughter Barbara last night questioned if Mrs May had lived up to his legacy.
In an article for Times Red Box, she wrote: ‘Sadly, such admiration has not led to following in his footsteps in relation to today’s child refugees… I increasingly despair at the situation facing child refugees in Europe today.’
Sources on the backbench 1922 Committee had let it be known in advance that Sir Graham was arriving armed with an envelope containing the results of a secret ballot of senior Tories authorising him to trigger an immediate confidence vote in Mrs May’s leadership if she refused to step aside.
He did not need it. Instead he had his own awkward moment when he had to explain that he was planning to run for the leadership himself and would have to step aside as returning officer for the election.
The announcement did not come as a total surprise to No10 aides, who have privately questioned for some time whether Sir Graham has acted as a completely honest broker in the manoeuvrings between the leadership and the Tory backbenches that ultimately led to Mrs May’s downfall.
But that was no concern of Mrs May now. After her meeting with staff, the PM and her husband got back in the car and returned to their Berkshire home.
This weekend they will relax at Chequers, the PM’s country retreat. She is still Prime Minister. But after dealing with almost three years of chaos, pressure and disloyalty, it is almost over.