Shiver me timbers! Captain Shapps sails through choppy waters

Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary
Is Grant Shapps a future Tory leader? He's a great communicator and loyal – unless your name is Liz Truss - Thomas Krych/Zuma/Alamy

Avast me hearties! This salty sea dog sailed into Lancaster House in central London for the magnificently titled First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2024. This is what Britain is really about. Tall sailors in gold and braid having well-mannered debates about knots and cocktails, a throwback to a time when we not only ruled the waves, we smoothed them out to an elegant ripple.

“Just my luck,” whispered a Tory MP – a bachelor with a passion for topiary – “a room full of seamen and no sign of a Jolly Roger.” Being unfamiliar with the naval jargon, I smiled politely and returned to my fantasy of bringing back the Empire. Like all good Right-wing ideas, Sir Keir Starmer will probably steal it.

The Sea Lord spoke and the spell promptly broke. He was all “resilience” and “breaking paradigms” and thanked his staff for working “across government connectively to drive this forward”. The ghost of Nelson rolled his eye.

The Lord of the Sea was happy to introduce Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, who must be very happy to have a job that many Tory MPs would kill for (and Dominic Raab has probably tried). Penny Mordaunt auditioned for the role for years by showing up to parties dressed to remind ministers of her naval experience – Drake at Gove’s 50th, Jack Sparrow at Coffey’s cat baptism – culminating in a mermaid for Rishi’s birthday. She went too far, as usual, and insisted on occupying a bath filled with saltwater. I’m told No 10 stank of seaweed for weeks.

Instead, let us salute Mr Shapps. He could be a future Tory leader. A superb communicator, loyal – unless your name is Liz Truss – he’s clearly got the memo that Rishi wants to fight the next election on security. The world is dangerous, goes the logic; we can’t trust Labour with defence. Grant touted more money and six new “multi-role support ships” that come with drones, lasers and a dance floor for royal galas. “What about manpower?” asked a journalist. This is the big issue. Sailors are being asked to spend too much time at sea, when they should be at home with their girlfriends, or on the town with Gene Kelly.

Well, what about the £75 billion I’ve squeezed out of the Treasury, replied Shapps – telling us that when he donated £100 to Jeremy Hunt’s marathon, the Chancellor replied: “I think you got the better end of the deal.” Shapps would no doubt pass his officer training with flying colours. The first thing they learn is how to deflect hostile moves with a joke. The audience, used to submarines, laughed very quietly so as not to give away their position to an enemy ship.

“You are simply world class,” Shapps told the assembly, and one has to agree. Sitting, as I was, at knee height, I was struck by the perfect lines of each sailor’s trousers – not a crease nor a rumple. Mine always resemble laddered tights. How do they do it? Good tailoring? Starch?

“Ooooh, I’d love to get inside one of those uniforms,” sighed the Tory MP. I think I know just what he meant.