Over-reaction turns a fashion debate into a Downing Street spat as tempers flare and caustic comments are exchanged, says Bill Jamieson
Six months into the impenetrable trek that is the Brexit Maze and events at Westminster have taken a sinister turn. Social media has erupted, deep offence caused, angry words exchanged and daggers have flashed.
I refer to The Amazing Case of the “Wrong” Trousers.
Its relevance to great affairs of state? You may well ask. But for the past week or more Downing Street has been abuzz with the “Trousergate” controversy. This was sparked by a photograph in Vogue magazine of Prime Minister Theresa May relaxing in a pair of dark brown flared leather trousers, price £995.
The red hot issue of the leather trousers, or how and where women wear them, or why they wear them, or what they cost or what they look like or the comments they have drawn from former Cabinet ministers have been the explosive questions that have preoccupied Westminster and its commentariat for the past week.
Now the issue of What Political Women Wear need not always be so toxic. Our own First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chooses her couture wisely and well. Her bold coloured outfits come from Edinburgh clothing boutique Totty Rocks, favoured by, amongst others, Kate Moss and Lorraine Kelly.
And when SNP minister Angela Constance sparked a frenzy of photo-snapping a few years back, it was when she stepped out wearing a pair of £125 “Bambi Deer” high heels from British shoe company Irregular Choice. The quirky footwear which set Holyrood abuzz (“Ace shoes, hen” was one comment) has acquired a cult following. Ms Constance subsequently donated her shoes to charity.
But into the Westminster firestorm, I enter with knees a-tremble. Little wonder, in this age of acute gender sensitivity, most males have turned a politically correct blind eye or otherwise backed off.
But it’s “not just about the bloody trousers” as one Downing Street aide was quoted as saying last week. In just a few days The Amazing Case of the “Wrong” Trousers has sprung (my apologies) many legs.
The photo-shoot featuring Mrs May in leather trousers designed by Amanda Wakeley, outfitter to the stars, may have been barely a one-day wonder had not the Conservative MP for Loughborough and former Cabinet member Nicky Morgan gone on public attack. “I don’t think,” she sniffed, “I’ve ever spent that much on anything, apart from my wedding dress.” The Prime Minister’s trousers, she added, would not pass “the Loughborough market test” (though it was not made clear what this test involved, who marked the papers or why it mattered).
Some have put this down to sour grapes on her part after being sacked by Mrs May from the Cabinet this summer. But even this revenge attack might not have flared by as much as the aforesaid trousers had not the Prime Minister’s joint chief of staff, Fiona Hill, then intervened.
In messages leaked to a Sunday newspaper, it emerged that she had texted Ms Morgan’s fellow backbencher, Alistair Burt, urging him not to bring Ms Morgan – “that woman” – to a Downing Street reception as a result of her trouser comments. Ms Morgan heard about the messages and protested to Hill that “no man brings me to any meeting”. “Well, he just did,” Hill replied. “So there!”
The reputation of Ms Hill, born in Greenock, a former staffer on The Scotsman, and a one-time football writer for a west of Scotland red-top tabloid, goes before her: words such as “pugilistic”, “ferocious”, even “terrifying” surround her. As a former special adviser to Mrs May at the Home Office, she had an infamous run-in with Michael Gove when he was education secretary (leading to her resignation) while relations with Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s then communications chief, were reportedly terrible.
From the point of view of Mrs May’s defenders, all this is about loyalty: you do not attack your own party leader so publically – and personally. For others the spat has exposed a weakness in Mrs May: a thin skin, a lack of proportion and a hot response by her minder to criticism that bordered on the childish.
And for some it exposed – how best to put this – an indelicacy of manners: this was hardly an exchange that did the feminist cause many favours. Such personal remarks are dangerous in politics: they should not have been made in the way they were, and certainly not in public. And they open the attackers to the charge of hypocrisy: for it emerged that Ms Morgan herself carries her papers in a £950 Mulberry bag: “a gift”, she insisted – though it is hard to imagine a man buying a handbag at such a price.
Even if this was just an affair of manners, the fuss would die down soon enough. But it has the air of flashing revelation about it: that while this may be a thing of small consequence, it leaves a lingering suspicion that similar reaction in future could cause Downing Street all manner of trouble.
While it has certainly revealed Ms Hill as a fiery defender and loyalist at Number 10 and mistress of the crushing slap-down, it also reveals a side to her temperament disturbingly similar to that of Tony Blair’s infamous snarling rottweiler, Alastair Campbell.
Perhaps that is what the job entails. Downing Street is not at all the same as a Jane Austen drawing room. Nor could males make a claim to be models of diplomacy and charm: Churchill seldom missed the opportunity for caustic remark while Gordon Brown was not above hurling missiles and swearing at staff.
But when the intervention of the PM’s minder inflames a controversy rather than extinguishing it, one can’t help but wonder when the next flare-up will be – and whom it might consume. The brown leather trousers may prove in time the least hot feature of this whole bizarre affair.
l End Note: in the interests of gender balance for this article, I should confess that I once bought a pair of turquoise trousers. My wife took exception and the trousers disappeared from the wardrobe. Some time later I noticed an acrid smell from a smouldering garden incinerator. I thought it odd at the time as I had not used it for months, but here’s the strange thing: I have never seen the turquoise trousers since. I should also add that I have no eye-catching accessories other than an unusual choice of man bag. For all those tedious but indispensable accoutrements of modern life – biros, pens, notebook, spectacles, iPhone, coin purse, wallet and cardholder – I use a small but nifty tool bag with the name of the internationally famous couturier emblazed upon it: “Stanley”. I cannot say that I have seen Theresa May sporting one, or even Nicky Morgan. But B&Q and Travis Perkins are the go-to stockists.