It says something about Westminster that its commentators, amid all the shoutiness and froth, often treat proficiency as a revelation. When someone tells us that Michael Gove, Ben Wallace or even, back in the day, Dominic Raab is respected by colleagues or civil servants and is “in command of their brief”, we are invited to feel reassured that this person – more often seen making silly braying noises in parliament or slaloming through calamity on the morning news – works hard and knows what they’re doing. It encourages us to believe that behind the media scandals there is sobriety and purpose, even in a year of three prime ministers, four chancellors and one self-inflicted market crash.
If you want to bestow competence on a minister – as demonstrated when Jeremy Hunt was appointed chancellor and again when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister – the phrase “a safe pair of hands” is a safe pair of hands, especially if you position said hands on a helm, tiller or wheel. Oliver Dowden achieved a full house, concluding an ode to the new PM in the Telegraph by declaring that “with Rishi at the helm, we are in safe hands”. Among those who used the same language to attest to Sunak’s steadiness were the former defence secretary Liam Fox, the former Treasury minister Jim O’Neill, the former Tory campaign director Mark Neeham and countless reports in the right-wing press.
Whether you would put Sunak’s actual hands anywhere near an actual helm in light of his recent track record with vehicles, from a pained attempt to fill one up to failing to put on the appropriate safety-ware, is by the by. The familiarity of the image is part of the reassurance. Its effect is enhanced by the UK being compared to something so comprehensible as a ship: a place that runs on order, routine and discipline, and where the staff are drilled in all the essentials, such as navigation and maintaining the engine, and the nice-to-haves, such as how to tie a double-sheet bend and maintain a ready supply of towels. Stock metaphors are in their way a conservative phenomenon, and there is no image more attached to clement visions of the right sort of chaps doing the right sorts of things than the ship of state.
In Rationalism in Politics (1962) the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, writing in counterpoise to the utopian schemes of the postwar age, employed the ship of state to describe a managerial, safety-first view of politics: “In political activity… men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”
Oakeshott might have been describing Hunt and Sunak’s task when he wrote that “the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics” is “to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down”.
But, unfortunately for them, in today’s Conservative Party there is another ship: a buccaneering, black-sailed unfamiliar. It roams the seas in search of adventure, plunder and underwhelming bilateral trade deals, drawing in its wake a vast and birdless Brexit. Its crew, the scurvy dogs of the European Research Group, scuttle up and down the rigging with daggers between their teeth, brooding over the exile of their blonde, blue-eyed captain and world-king, an adventurer who has more than a touch of the Francis Drakes about him. Their fires of desire are not for quelling.
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This privateering galleon has an ancient predecessor. In the sixth book of Plato’s Republic the Athenian city-state is compared to a boat and its politicians to the sailors, who are “quarrelling with one another about the steering – everyone is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation… They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard.”
The passage ends by asking how, on such a vessel, will the true pilot – an ideal leader, a wise, far-seeing, morally elevated philosopher-king – be regarded by the mutinous crowd: “Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?”
Sunak might not be a true pilot but in modern terms he has all the right qualifications to lead. He is a man who projects the eternal sunshine of the spotless CV – head boy at Winchester, a first from Oxford, Stanford MBA, Goldman Sachs – and the tech utopianism of 2000s Silicon Valley. But has any of this prepared him for managing Britain and the Conservative Party in 2022: for constant rebellion, scandal and constraint; and for the task of mitigating decline?
He might look in envy at his opposite number, Keir Starmer, who, in sync with his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, now projects the hard-boiled competence and sense of control Sunak is striving for. Maybe Starmer is a genuine technocrat, as opposed to a performance of one – someone who sticks to their course because their expertise, rigour and lack of imagination have told them they are right. The sort of person who would never forget their seat belt, or take it off for something so frivolous as a social media post.
Sunak has conveyed no such steadiness, from his desperate attempts to change the momentum of the Conservative leadership contest that he lost last summer – promising tax cuts he had previously condemned as irresponsible, and proffering a few timid culture-wars soundbites – to his serial policy U-turns, and now his seeming paralysis as senior ministers serve up one sacking offence after another.
Leadership is a kind of confidence trick in which the audience has to be in on the scam. It doesn’t work unless people deign to collude, whether passively or actively, in the idea that someone deserves to be in charge. Sunak’s self-professed reliability – recently insisting to parliament’s liaison committee that “I am really, really robust” – amounts to little more than pleading; likewise his declared professionalism, integrity and accountability. Perhaps the only truly steadfast part of the Prime Minister is a belief that someone like him (or, come to think of it, him) should be in charge. He cleaves to this even now, in his starched white and epaulettes, as the tempests of his party and the wider world threaten to engulf him.
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