Nigel's coat. Photo: Carl Court
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Decoding Nigel's coat – what the Ukip leader's clothing tells us

From Del Boy to poor Michael Foot's donkey jacket, outerwear can tell you a lot about a man.

There is something strangely baffling about Nigel Farage, despite his presentation of himself as a straightforward man of the people, which is perhaps most evident in the peculiar matter of his coat. Velvet-collared, knee-length, tan-coloured, it is a variation of a Crombie or “covert” coat, originally designed for equestrian purposes. By the late 19th century, it was as likely to be sported by a gentleman out and about in London as on the hunting field, hence the Victorian illustrations of the pugilistic Marquess of Queensberry punching his son on a city street while wearing a covert coat.

Queensberry’s unfortunate son was, of course, Lord Alfred Douglas, the friend and lover of Oscar Wilde; and both father and son contributed to Wilde’s downfall. Now, you might feel that a homosexual scandal dating back to 1895 has little to do with the sartorial choices of the Ukip leader but in the words of Oscar Wilde, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

I have no idea whether Farage is a fan of Oscar Wilde, but he has certainly shown himself willing to pass judgement on another man’s dress sense. In 2010 he stood up in the European Parliament and told Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, that he had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”. At the time of this attack, the Ukip leader was wearing an unremarkable grey suit that looked almost identical to that of the man he was condemning; since then, however, Farage has chosen to campaign in rather more striking outfits.

Yet if we are to follow suit and judge by appearances, the message of his coat is no less mysterious. For if at first the covert coat was a signifier of the upper-class elite, it was subsequently adopted by the landed gentry and the racing fraternity, then became part of a Sixties skinhead uniform, and thereafter took on even more raffish connotations. Hence its appearances in Eighties television series such as Minder, where George Cole wore a covert coat to play the roguish Arthur Daley, as did David Jason as Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses.

Thus Farage’s coat is suggestive of a number of different meanings, from gentlemanly sporting pursuits to working-class aggression. And though it seems unlikely that it is the cut of this coat that has attracted Richard Desmond to Farage, the owner of the Express Newspapers group did say on 16 April that he was donating £1m to Ukip because he was “fed up with the floppy-haired Eton club”.

As it happens, the belligerent Marquess of Queensberry was also suspicious of Eton; indeed, when his wife put down their son’s name for the school, Queensberry was horrified, saying that he didn’t want the boy to be turned into a “Belgravian loafer”. Instead, Douglas was educated at Winchester and Oxford, where he became a floppy-haired poet. Worse still, at least in his father’s eyes, was his relationship with Wilde, whom Queensberry later accused, in a misspelled note, as “posing as a Somdomite”.

These threads of history may be entirely irrelevant to the present election campaign and yet they remain intriguing. Desmond made his fortune through a publishing empire that included pornographic magazines (and a gay monthly title, Attitude, that would have inflamed Queensberry). He himself was educated at Christ’s College, Finchley (until he left at 14); yet his dislike of floppy-haired Etonians was not sufficient to stop him having dinner with David Cameron at Chequers in 2011. Nor has Farage’s private education at Dulwich College prevented Desmond’s support for Ukip. “It’s a party for good, ordinary British people,” he declared in a statement in the Express. “It is not run by elitists.” The accompanying photograph showed Desmond together with Farage as the newspaper proprietor handed over his donation; each man was wearing a pinstriped suit and a grin.

As for the covert coat: well, it’s still out and about at the head of what the Express calls “Mr Farage’s People’s Army”. Oddly, all of this reminds me of a leader’s coat from long ago: Michael Foot’s so-called “donkey jacket”, a short, dark green coat that he wore to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in 1981. His enemies said it was a disgrace that the leader of the opposition should look like “a navvy”; in fact, Foot’s wife had bought the coat from Harrods at considerable expense and it was admired by the Queen Mother, who said it was “a smart, sensible coat for a day like this”.

“I never dreamt this was going to cause such trouble,” said Foot in later years, reflecting on his coat and the “wounding caricatures” that followed. Could it be that history will see Foot as a gentlemanly character, dressed in seemly attire, unlike some of the spivs and turncoats now seeking influence and power?

Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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