Success in the job is about a lot more than oratory
Politics is the ultimate spectator sport. Very few truly partake but almost everyone watches it, willingly or not. Naturally, many come to form strong opinions about the players and their performance. We speak of politicians’ appearances at the despatch box and on television programmes as though it were a football match, and abuse them accordingly. Not coincidentally, sporting metaphors abound in political journalism.
Familiarity breeds contempt, but also a loss of perspective. Politics is supremely difficult: for every stuttering third-rate frontbencher you have never heard of, there are a hundred would-be MPs who never got close to entering the House of Commons. By definition, almost anyone who is in Parliament is better at politics than almost anyone who is reading this piece.
This brings us to our new prime minister, who just delivered a rather forgettable speech on the doorstep of No10. Offering vaguely Thatcherite platitudes about the country’s future, it is not hard to imagine some of those watching were wondering why she, and not they, was the one standing there in front of the podium.
But for all her wooden manners and deficiencies in her speech — she often speaks as if she is addressing a roomful of unusually thick toddlers — Liz Truss got there because she is a supremely skilled politician. She convinced the Conservative backwoodsmen of South West Norfolk to not deselect her after she had an affair with a MP; she survived in the Cabinets of three successive prime ministers; she backed Remain, then defeated a high-profile and early Brexiteer by convincing the Tory membership that she was the truer Brexiteer.
And of course, there is luck. She was at the right place and time to be added to David Cameron’s A-List of candidates, The missteps she committed as a minister were too boring to make headlines. When her Cabinet colleagues were doing the dirty work of removing Boris Johnson in London, she was serendipitously on a plane thousands of miles away, which protected her from the taint of treason. What if it had been the UK’s turn to host the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting instead of Indonesia’s?
But all this may count for naught. In most domains, those at the peak of their profession receive commensurate success and rewards. In politics, even the very best can and do end up as failures. Men and women who have prepared all their lives for the moment often see it all crumble before their eyes the moment they enter No 10.
This is why the ultimate theorist of practical politics remains the dogmatically pragmatic Michael Oakeshott who understood, as few did and do, that there is no ultimate victory in politics, but merely survival and the chance of fighting on for another day. And there is no shortage of would-be helmsmen.
Liz Truss is assuming the charge of the Queen’s government at a time of widespread national discontent, domestic and foreign challenges on a scale that have not been seen in at least a generation, and a seemingly unsurmountable polling lead by the Opposition. Many of the factors essential to the cure are outside of her control, and even if she steers Britain through the crisis there is no guarantee the voters will be grateful to her. Welcome to the madness, Prime Minister, you asked for it.