Handbags at dawn over May's trousers
Wednesday 13 December
They’re gorgeous. So soft. And that cosy jumper. Terrific. But something’s amiss. And it’s not just those ghastly shoes. Or the price.
We know what Theresa May looks like when she’s relaxing – and it’s not reclining on a sofa in leather and cashmere and a pair of trainers that have never seen the far side of a front door. We remember the Val-de-ri, Val-de-ra pictures from the Swiss walking holiday.
We were supposed to notice the Prime Minister’s trousers. They were carefully chosen and you can bet that she had to take the labels out before the photoshoot for a highly personal interview with Eleanor Mills of The Sunday Times in which she confides that Brexit keeps her awake at night.
There’s nothing earth-shattering in her description of her upbringing as a vicar’s daughter, her education, her childless marriage. The Brexit line makes a bit to be wound into the political story for the front, but the gold is in the trousers. Separated out from the seven pages in the magazine is a page 5 story about how husband Philip is her “style counsel”, good at buying bracelets and flowers and at saying “yes” or “no” to outfits (most of us find that husbands can be decisive after half an hour outside the changing room). This is combined with a fashion commentary on the leather outfit – no mention of the rather nice coat and jacket she also wears in the magazine – complete with how-much-does-it-cost and how-you-can-get-it-cheaper panel. All very complimentary.
The political story doesn’t fly – but the trousers do. The Mail and Express both reproduce the sofa picture the next day and the Mail replicates the commentary/get-the-look package. Theresa rocks leather! End of story. Time to get on with berating Remoaners and the latest court action aimed at thwarting the will of the people.
All of this happened nearly three weeks ago. But while loyalist papers might have been purring over the queen of the kitten heels’ fashion sense, others were not. There were quiet mutterings.
Mutterings that came to the ears of The Times’s Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson. They conduct a political interview every week for publication in Saturday’s paper and their next subject was Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary sacked by May and whom they now describe as “the leader of the Tory resistance, the pro-European liberal Conservative who is fighting to stop her party and the country veering to the right”.
The 1,500-word article is meatier than the sister paper’s long read on May. Morgan borrows Tony Blair’s phrase from The New European that “we are the insurgents now”, and talks about the Richmond by-election, the needs of the 48%, the threat of extremism. None of it the sort of stuff, however, that other papers are likely to follow up. Even the row with May about the schooling of illegal immigrants’ children is old news.
But then the interviewers ask about the way May prides herself on being in touch with Middle England and point to the £995 trousers, “which some MPs felt was at odds with the mood of the just-managing classes Mrs May purports to represent”. Note, these are the words of the journalists, not Morgan. She simply agrees that “it has been noted and discussed”, adding that she didn’t think she’d spent that much on anything apart from her wedding dress.
She goes on to say that it can be hard in Downing Street to keep a connection with the outside world, that you might feel obliged to plough through paperwork, but that getting out and about was irreplaceable. Again, it is the journalists who interpret this as a description of May surrounded by a small coterie of trusted aides. All Morgan says is: “My barometer is always ‘how am I going to explain this in Loughborough market?’”
As the British Journalism Awards judges noted last week when she was named political journalist of the year, Sylvester has the knack of asking exactly the right question. It was her question about motherhood that put paid to Andrea Leadsom’s hopes of becoming prime minister.
May’s joint chief of staff Fiona Hill, who is reported to have advised on the outfit, took exception to Morgan’s remarks and before you could say knife, the former minister had been disinvited from a Downing Street meeting to discuss Europe.
The pro-Remain Mail on Sunday splashed on an “astonishingly vicious” exchange of text messages and delighted in the fact that the story was one of four produced from leaks in the week after May had ordered a clampdown on leaks. It also ran a price check on the Prime Minister’s other recent outfit and came up with a total of £5,000.
There is little love lost between the two Mail papers. The Sunday’s assault on No 10 was a red rag to its daily sister, and it came back with all guns blazing on Monday, a full two weeks after it had first printed the trousers photograph.
A double-page spread was built around a picture of Morgan carrying a £950 Mulberry bag - which the text grudgingly acknowledges was apparently a gift more than a decade ago. Quentin Letts was allowed 2,000 words (turning to the next page) to say what he thought about the Remainer MP. It wasn’t his best effort at a hatchet job, although 48 percenters might smile at the paragraph noting that she had failed twice to become chairman of Oxford University’s Conservative association, having been beaten in the second contest by “Dan Hannan, the brilliant politician who went on to become a Eurosceptic MEP and one of the philosophical forces behind the Leave campaign”.
Both Letts and chief political correspondent Daniel Martin say that Morgan has been dubbed “Ms U-turn” because of her changes of direction while at the Education department, but while Google returns half a million results in a search for “Theresa May leather trousers”, it fails to come up with any previous examples of this nickname being applied to anyone.
Further into the paper, Dominic Lawson weighs in with the opinion that the trousers prove “Theresa” isn’t a phoney like Cameron or Blair. So what if a high-earning woman spends her money on clothes?
Fair enough – but what about the paper’s history of attacking Amal Clooney’s liking for designer clothes “while grandstanding as a champion of the downtrodden”? Are there no echoes here?
Over at the Telegraph, the spad spat made a diary note for Charles Moore, the Sun and Evening Standard reported that the trousers had all but sold out, the Express had Morgan’s constituency party telling her to “belt up”. The Times ran a leader, the Guardian a Rowson political cartoon.
As the week wore on, the story refused to go away. James Kirkup, Allison Pearson and Jane Merrick all had their say for the Telegraph, Vanessa Feltz joined in for the Express, Suzanne Moore for the Guardian, Isabel Hardman for the Spectator.
The Mail, reluctant to let go – or even to leave the office – asked its women writers to fess up to whether they’d ever blown a grand on an item of clothing. One had spent £8,000 on a dress, worn it to a party and then returned it, saying the sequins had come off. No male staffers featured.
Every hour produced more opinions, more tweets, more speculation about whether May had used her Amanda Wakeley loyalty card to get a discount.
Tory MPs popped up to offer their twopenn’th. Even fellow Remainer picked up the knife: had he read The Times interview before pronouncing “What Nicky Morgan said of the Prime Minister was completely unacceptable”? She didn’t say anything about the Prime Minister. She said that she didn’t own a pair of leather trousers and that she hadn’t spent £1,000 on anything other than her wedding dress. Nadine Dorries pointed to the handbag and accused Morgan of “rank hypocrisy”.
By now, the debate was taking an unpredictable turn: it wasn’t the usual stuff about “you wouldn’t be saying all this if she were a man” (the comments on Lord Sumption’s ties during the Supreme Court hearing proved that not to be the case), nor was it any longer about May appearing out of touch by wearing expensive clothes while trying to reach out to the JAMs (the “it’s her money, let her spend it as she wants” argument held across the social spectrum). And there was no “mutton dressed as lamb” bitchiness of the type at the top of this piece. Everyone I have spoken to thinks the trousers looked dreadful, but no one has said as much in print.
No. This was about control, about Theresa May’s closest aides and what Hill’s response to the Morgan interview said about the Prime Minister herself.
But most of all, it was about the divisions that Brexit continues to throw up.
There is no doubt that May knew exactly what she wanted to say when she got dressed that day. That message may have been as simple as “I wear the trousers”. Or that she was an on-trend fashion leader, comfortable in her own and another creature’s skin.
Or maybe it was, at last, the definition that has so long eluded her.
That Brexit means brown trousers.
*A version of this article appeared in The New European on December 15. Back copies of the paper can be obtained via this link
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