“This is a great time to be alive,” Theresa May declared, with the closest she gets to political passion.
But as her audience of bemused accountants – all six stories of them – pressed their noses against the glass atrium, they looked like tourists at a zoo watching a strange creature slowly breathe its last.
Like her Brexit plans, like this zombie Parliament, the prime minister has for months now been neither living nor dead.
And as she tried one final time to resurrect her compromise package, the latest alterations made her Frankenstein’s monster of a deal look even more unappealing to MPs of all stripes.
The event at the PWC office block in Charing Cross began with unintentional humor as her host introduced the PM with the line: “Like all business leaders we crave certainty and stability…here’s Theresa May.”
To be fair, the actual speech itself was one of the most honest, personal and simply argued of her premiership.
There was a rare touch of self-awareness, as she admitted that finding a Brexit compromise “has proved even harder than I anticipated”.
There was the glimmer of regret as she said her offer “to give up the job I love earlier than I would like” hadn’t persuaded her Brexiteer MPs to support her.
There was even a pop at David Cameron, the man who reduced the complexity of the EU to a binary in-out referendum, and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the men who ran with it.
“The challenge of taking Brexit from the simplicity of the choice on the ballot paper to the complexity of resetting the country’s relationship with 27 of its nearest neighbours was always going to be huge,” she said.
Setting a valedictory tone, May said her repackaged deal would provide “one last chance” to deliver Brexit, itself confirmation that she won’t be sticking around if it’s defeated a fourth time.
But her main pitch was that this was a ‘new’ offer to MPs. In case we hadn’t got the point, she said the phrase ‘New Brexit Deal’ nine times, ‘new workers’ rights’ twice and ‘new independent Office of Environmental Protection’ once.
Adding the magic prefix ‘new’ once worked for Tony Blair’s new Labour. But Blair had the advantage of two whopping Commons majorities, and even the great compromiser admits that Brexit is something you simply can’t triangulate.
Unlike the former Labour PM, May is the world’s worst political advocate. And the backlash from even moderate Tory MPs today underlined a growing view of their leader: she can’t sell a deal to save her life, but she can sell out to ruin theirs.
As she looked up frequently at the audience above her, possibly for divine inspiration, May instead focused on a pitch to Labour MPs.
For the first time, she made two genuinely new offers. One was of votes on a temporary customs union, the other on a ‘confirmatory ballot’ that would let the public decide if it liked her Brexit divorce deal any better than parliament.
Yet the fresh appeal, together with moves to commit to EU rules on workers’ rights and the environment, was shunned by Labour largely because it came years and months too late.
Timing, as the 2017 snap election proved in spades, is not May’s forte. And it’s still baffling why she chose this day – two days before the European Parliament elections – to advertise to the world that her party is so deeply divided that it will never heal under her leadership.
“Look around the world and consider the health of liberal democrats, er, liberal democratic politics,” she said. Even one of the No.10 team grimaced at the gaffe, a reference to the now resurgent pro-Remain party which Cameron had used, abused and defeated to get a majority in 2015.
The offer of a ‘confirmatory ballot’ was certainly bold. It means Labour MPs who want a second referendum now have to make a big gamble of their own: take May’s meagre offer now or take the risk that you can persuade Jeremy Corbyn to commit to a public vote in a general election.
But the swift dismissal by those Labour MPs of May’s pledge was understandable. After some less than clear briefing, it turns out all that she’s offering is the chance to vote on a process that will be separate from the Withdrawal Agreement Bill itself.
As Labour’s Margaret Beckett pointed out, May seemed to contradict herself later in her own speech, when she said that if her deal failed there would have to be a general election ”or a second referendum that could lead to revocation – and no Brexit at all”.
The PM said her new bill would be published within “a few days”, yet it seems some of these ideas were scribbled on the back of the Cabinet’s fag packet just hours before her speech. To say they are not fully formed legislative proposals is an understatement.
The Cabinet’s Brexiteers had pushed back hard against the idea of a ‘free vote’ on customs or new referendum. Led by Jeremy Hunt, they also refused to include Labour’s option of a permanent customs arrangement.
The most dangerous consequence for May is that in offering even her minimalist ‘new’ votes on customs and a public vote, she has at a stroke given scores of ‘switcher’ Tory MPs the perfect excuse to switch back against her.
Brexiteer leadership candidates like Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab had already been showing buyers’ remorse after reluctantly backing her deal on its third attempt.
Now they have a get-out-of-jail-free card handed to them by their own prime minister as she languishes in a political prison of her own making. Even moderates like Andrew Percy are now in danger of rebelling.
Former loyalist turned arch critic Nigel Evans had a neat line as he pointed out the danger of a Brexit Party European election landslide that now loomed even larger: “If she wants a second referendum, she only has to wait until Thursday.”
As May ended her speech, she struck an almost plaintive note. “This deal is not the final word on our future relationship with the EU – it is a stepping stone to reach that future.” Unfortunately for her, this now looks like her final ‘big Brexit speech’.
At least her official spokesman had an aptly gallows sense of humour. He was asked earlier in the day if this speech should be put in a sequence with her previous orations at Lancaster House (hard Brexit), Florence (soft Brexit) and Mansion House (even softer Brexit). “I don’t think I ever put them in a box-set like that,” he joked.
At the end of the ‘Charing Cross Compromise’ speech and brief Q&A, the PM left the atrium to the briefest smattering of polite applause. Yet the smell of political death haunted the room, and the reaction was so bad that it will now be a triumph if she survives as prime minister by the end of this week, let alone next month.
When the Tory backbench 1922 Committee executive meet tomorrow, fresh demands for her to go will be made. The men and women in grey suits may put her out of her misery. And us out of ours.