There was a time, back in the dark ages, when Theresa May seemed doomed to be defined by her shoes.
Well, never let it be said we haven’t made progress – all the way up to her ankles. Or, more precisely, to the hem of her sleek, conker-brown, eye-wateringly expensive leather trousers. The prime minister was photographed by The Sunday Times two weeks ago, relaxing – or as close as she ever comes to doing so – on the Downing Street sofa in the £995 trousers, plus a £495 cashmere sweater and designer trainers. And the ensuing row over whether anyone spending the equivalent of a month's mortgage on one outfit can claim to represent people “just about managing” to make ends meet has rumbled ever since.
No doubt there’s a grain of everyday sexism in all this, as there always is when women's clothes are deemed to speak for them. But it’s just not true to say this would never happen to a man.
Remember David Cameron visiting Somerset when it flooded, in a hastily bought pair of cheap Asda wellies because he was worried his own £95 Hunters weren’t very man-of-the-people? Or, turning up to the royal wedding dressed down in a lounge suit, in case a morning suit looked too elitist? It’s silly, but clothes do talk, especially early in a leader’s career, when people have little else to go on, or else Jeremy Corbyn’s neighbours wouldn’t have clubbed together to buy the famously scruffy Labour leader a halfway respectable suit.
The truth, however, is that this particular Trousergate has very little to do with actual trousers. Instead, it’s fast becoming a trial of strength between Theresa May and Nicky Morgan – the former equalities secretary who sparked the row by saying she’d never spent that much on anything “apart from my wedding dress” – and a test of the prime minister’s leadership style. It’s about who wears the trousers, in a government with a tiny majority and a lot of extremely restless backbenchers.
Let’s be honest, nobody comes out of this spat looking a million dollars. Doubtless she never dreamed it would go this far, but Morgan shouldn’t have let herself be lured into commenting on another woman’s clothes, which only gives the media an excuse to screech “catfight”. (Already, the Daily Mail is snarking about how her Mulberry handbag cost nearly as much as Theresa’s trousers.)
But nor should Downing Street have fallen into the trap of furiously over-reacting to something so petty. If this is how they treat criticism of her trousers, what on earth will they do when her negotiating stance is challenged in Brussels?
No doubt there’s a grain of everyday sexism in all this, but it’s just not true to say this would never happen to a man
There has long been tension between May and the Morgan, formerly rivals for the Tory leadership and now crossing swords over Europe (Morgan is a ringleader in the rebel campaign for a softer Brexit). And, in fairness, that’s the context in which the scorching response from the prime minister’s joint chief of staff, Fiona Hill, should be seen. According to a series of leaks at the weekend, Hill texted a male MP post-Trousergate instructing him not to “bring that woman to Number 10 again” before exchanging bad-tempered texts with Morgan herself; shortly afterwards, Morgan was uninvited from a planned meeting at Downing Street.
So far, so typical Team May, which, for years, has been protecting the boss by coming down on even minor challenges to her authority like a ton of bricks. But the risk of doing the same from the lofty heights of Downing Street is that it looks faintly paranoid. She’s a prime minister now. Shouldn’t she be above this sort of spat?
If Nicky Morgan has a useful role to play in Brexit – and the point of the meeting from which she was barred was supposedly to discuss how pro-Europeans could help defend May when she has to make compromises that Eurosceptics don’t like – then she should be allowed to play it. And if she doesn’t, then she shouldn’t have been invited to the meeting in the first place. But, either way, and on either side, personal feelings shouldn't get in the way.
For, if in five years’ time Theresa May has managed to deliver a successful Brexit, while improving the lot of people who are struggling financially, she could frankly wear a tiara to the despatch box and nobody would care. But if she doesn’t, her team will rue the days when all they had to worry about was whether those were the wrong trousers.