LONDON — With just a week left in power, Prime Minister Theresa May used a valedictory speech on Wednesday to denounce the rancor, divisiveness and “absolutism” of politics both internationally and in Britain, where Brexit continues to tear apart her Conservative Party as it has since she took the job three years ago.
In a strong attack on populism and a defense of the postwar liberal order, Mrs. May was careful to mention neither her likely successor, the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, nor President Trump, whose comments on four liberal, minority first-term congresswomen she criticized this week. By contrast, she singled out President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for criticism by name.
Nonetheless, she called on the United States to accept the need for multilateral institutions, and warned against the “politics of winners and losers, of absolutes and of perpetual strife,” a concept, she said, “that threatens us all.”
A refusal to compromise, Mrs. May said, had coarsened public debate. “Some are losing the ability to disagree without demeaning the views of others,” she said, speaking to an invited audience at Chatham House.
But Mrs. May’s critics believe that some of her own language has fueled an intolerant political climate in Britain, and on Wednesday she acknowledged some mistakes. When she took over as prime minister in 2016, Mrs. May made no effort to build consensus on Brexit and derided some opponents, saying, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
Mrs. May’s inflexibility and stubborn handling of Brexit, her critics say, have left a poisonous legacy of a polarized nation without a road map out of the European Union.
Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party’s lawmakers in the British Parliament, accused Mrs. May’s party on Wednesday of siding with the “extremes” of politics. David Lammy, a Labour lawmaker, described her comments as “hollow words” and accused her of promoting populist rhetoric.
Hollow words from a PM who spent her years in office promoting Farage’s agenda with populist rhetoric, insulting EU citizens as “queue-jumpers”, and saying internationalists are “citizens of nowhere”. We’ll never forget the “Go Home” vans you put on our streets. https://t.co/Glb6trHIBD
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) July 17, 2019
In recent days, the British pound has fallen to two-year lows on international markets, over fears that Britain is hurtling toward a chaotic exit from the bloc at the end of October without an agreement.
That prospect plunged the Conservative Party on Wednesday into renewed warfare as lawmakers prepared for Mr. Johnson’s expected victory in a leadership contest that concludes next week. Writing on Twitter, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said the views of one hard-line colleague, who had suggested that a no-deal Brexit would be good for the economy, were “terrifying.”
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. https://t.co/abs2D0vMrw
— Philip Hammond (@PhilipHammondUK) July 17, 2019
Most analysts expect such an exit would cause severe economic problems, leave Britain without a trade agreement with its biggest and closest trading partner, and put it at a significant disadvantage as it seeks to patch up ties with the European Union.
But Mr. Johnson says he will keep the option of a no-deal withdrawal on the table. That is a popular stance among the 160,000 Conservative Party members who are voting by mail on who should be their next leader. The results of the leadership election are expected on Tuesday.
Mr. Johnson has said he wants to ax the so-called Irish backstop, which has been rejected three times by the British Parliament. The backstop, a critical part of the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Mrs. May, would prevent physical checks on the Irish border whatever happens in future trade talks with the European Union.
Instead, Mr. Johnson wants to resolve the Irish border issue during broader discussions on trade after Britain has left the bloc — an approach European officials have rejected.
The latest turbulence follows a debate on Monday when Mr. Johnson rejected possible concessions that might make the backstop more palatable to Conservative lawmakers, for example by imposing a time limit or providing an escape route. Mr. Johnson’s rival for the party leadership, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, took a similar position.
That has unnerved the currency markets because it appeared to close off one potential compromise, suggesting that no deal is now a significant risk.
The mood has been darkened by reports of a rocky recent meeting between Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, and Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator. Mr. Barclay called the withdrawal agreement dead during that encounter, and on Wednesday said that was “not a controversial observation.” He added that the prospects of a no-deal exit were “underpriced.”
Whether all this saber-rattling is the prelude to a dramatic autumn crisis or simply Mr. Johnson’s tough opening bid in talks with the European Union is far from clear. There is a clear majority in Parliament against leaving without any agreement, although there is no clarity on whether lawmakers could, technically, stop a no-deal exit.
Still, most analysts believe it is unlikely that Mr. Johnson could suspend Parliament in order to secure a no-deal Brexit. On Wednesday, the House of Lords voted to make it harder for a new prime minister to bypass Parliament, though there is still an opportunity for the House of Commons to reverse the stance.
Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary who had hardened her position on Brexit to include a no-deal option, swerved again this week to suggest that it was improbable. Mr. Johnson, she suggested, might have to back down once his proposals “collide with reality.”