Juliet Dunlop: Political wives want credibility

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Businesswoman, alpha female and star of The Apprentice Karren Brady, landed a tough new gig this week. The West Ham vice-chairman, multi-millionaire company director and “mother of two” was George Osborne’s warm-up act at the Conservative Party conference.

As she introduced the Chancellor as “the only man I would be an apprentice for … The right man with the right plan.” it was clear that Brady, the government’s new Small Business Ambassador, had been hired because she “gets it”. I don’t mean all the stuff she said about entrepreneurs and 60-hour weeks and the difficulties of juggling a career with family life. I am referring to what she was wearing: a £38 dress from BHS that was 100 per cent on-message.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, but Brady, who’d carefully accessorised her high street find with a bouncy blow-dry, Chanel pearls and a diamond as big as the Ritz, obviously likes the finer things in life. Although she has a business involvement with BHS, it is clearly not her bag (a Louis Vuitton tote or a Hermès Birkin would be closer to the mark). So why did the label-loving “First Lady of Football” make such a point of going downmarket? It’s the economy, stupid!

Thrift, or in this case, “faux thrift”, is all the rage. It’s the new bling, the new recycling, the new Big Society, the new squeezed middle. It is also, as the heavily repeated Tory Party slogan tells us, “For hardworking people”. I am still a little confused about who these people are: are they the tenacious small business owners Brady mentioned in her speech? Or are they stay-at-home mothers, students, pensioners, people living with a disability, people who would like to work but can’t find any? It’s all a bit fuzzy, but it’s a look and a mood that all the parties have been channelling this conference season. And who better to model our concerns about the cost of living? Why, the political wives of course.

This year, conference watchers will have noted that Miriam Clegg exhibited impeccable high street credentials, teaming a Zara dress with Top Shop shoes. Justine Miliband opted for the pricier but not too expensive LK Bennett, while Samantha Cameron mixed a £42 dress with a belt that cost £196. We shouldn’t even know any of this; such fluff shouldn’t matter. But it seems it does. Never mind the fact that their husbands wear made-to-measure Savile Row suits that cost thousands, the adoring wives must look perfect in polyester. If and when the economy picks up it’ll be Marc Jacobs all the way, but for now, it’s handy hints on how to make a chicken last a fortnight.

Seeing the super-charged Brady and co pull off this “I’m just like you” stunt is to witness something truly cynical in action. It’s just a shame that these powerful, intelligent women go along with the illusion.

But as with most charades – even the best ones – there is eventually an unmasking. Or in this case, a slip-up over something as simple as the price of a loaf of bread. When the Prime Minister was asked this week how much a basic loaf from Sainsbury’s or Tesco would set him back, he had no idea. The myth-busting continued when Mr Cameron explained how he makes his own bread using a state-of-the-art bread-maker and flour from an organic Cotswold mill. It was an unguarded moment of honesty. We also established that Boris Johnson doesn’t know what a pint of milk costs. He later confirmed, however, that he did know what a bottle of champagne costs, saying, “so what?” about the semi-skimmed.

You could argue that they’re busy guys, but when politicians – and their wives – make a fuss about how ordinary they are, such lapses should, and do, make headlines. It’s seen as a sign that you’re dangerously out of touch, and that is never a good thing.

So, back to basics. Or perhaps not. We all know where that got John Major. But while the rest of us shop at Poundland, the bargain basement chain which has just seen a huge jump in profits, imagine bumping into Karren Brady eyeing up the Rimmel in her local branch. She obviously knows a good deal when she sees it but I think such an encounter unlikely. That’s where the “hardworking people” really shop.