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12 December 2016

Why a row over the Prime Minister’s clothes is about something much bigger

Theresa May is acquiring a reputation for aggression and clannishness. 

By Stephen Bush

I’ve been dutifully avoiding mentioning “Trousergate” – the row over whether or not Theresa May should have spent £995 on a pair of leather trousers – in this email, on the grounds that a) you’re all busy people and b) even typing the word “Trousergate” makes me feel tired, angry and irritable. 

Unfortunately, the row has metastasised into a proxy war over how May’s inner circle operates and her approach to party management, so I’ll just go over the row for those of you who, likAe me, have been studiously avoiding the whole thing.

1)   In the beginning, the PM wore a £995 pair of trousers for an interview.

2)   The leader of the opposition, Nicky Morgan, said that the offending garment had been “discussed in party circles” in her marginal seat. “I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much on anything apart from my wedding dress,” she added. 

Now it emerges that Fiona Hill, one half of May’s joint chiefs of staff, angrily texted Alistair Burt, regarded in some circles as the leader of the soft Brexit group among Conservative MPs, telling him not to bring “that woman” to a Downing Street meeting of the PM and the Remainer caucus. 

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That triggered a series of angry texts between Morgan and Hill, The texts found their way to the pages of the Mail on Sunday.

Not to be outdone, the MoS’s sister paper has bagged a hot scoop: that Morgan in fact owns a bag that costs just as much as the trousers in question. “Top Tory who attacked PM over £995 trousers has equally pricey bag” screams their frontpage.  

It’s safe to say that neither side is coming out of the row particularly well – and it’s worth noting that no-one batted an eyelid at David Cameron’s expensive tailoring – but the real story is not about Morgan’s handbag or May’s trousers but the increasing grumbles about the Downing Street set-up.

Fairly or unfairly, the received wisdom that May is a “safe pair of hands” is giving way to one that May would cross the street to start a fight. Though few would defend Morgan’s remarks, that Hill prolonged the row is, some Conservative backbenchers believe, symptomatic of the Downing Street team’s pugnacious response to opposition.

There’s some truth to that – the pointless court battle to trigger Article 50 through the royal prerogative when there is a supermajority to trigger it in the Commons in any case – but the real cause is a feeling among those Conservatives not “on side” with the new PM that the only way to get back on side would be to invent a time machine and back May from the beginning. That’s encouraging louder displays of dissent and criticism than would be forthcoming if they thought plum jobs, either in the Cabinet or elsewhere, might be extended to those currently exiled to the outer darkness. 

Added to that, there is a growing irritation with the May media machine, which is not doing as good a job of winning friends as Cameron’s did. In particular, the new PM’s coverage in the Sun is several degrees colder than that given to the old PM, though May will comfort herself that she enjoys a rapport with the Mail that Cameron would have given his eye teeth for. 

Still, that the Metro has splashed on the row – “The Wronged Trousers” is their take – should cause alarm in Downing Street. Though SW1 obsesses over the Today programme and the broadsheets, it is on the pages of free sheets and in the brief minutes of news on music radio that elections are fought and lost.

But those two arenas take their cues from what the conventional wisdom in the bubble is. That it is shifting away from “safe May” to “street-fighting May” is a sign that the PM’s honeymoon with the press, if not the public, is nearing its end.

Donald Trump has tapped Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his nominee for Secretary of State. Tillerson received the Russian Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin in 2012.

Elsewhere, the President-Elect suggested that the United States’ “One China” policy – it formally recognises the People’s Republic’s claim that Taiwan is a rogue province, not a nation-state – could be up for debate in trade talks with China. 

IN SICKNESS…

In a dramatic U-Turn, Theresa May will give the green light to local authorities to hike council tax in order to meet the rising cost of social care, the Times reveals. Having blocked Philip Hammond from taking action on the issue in the Autumn Statement, the PM has been won over to the case for additional funding. Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, will make the announcement.  “Social care crisis forces May to raise council tax” is their splash. 

THE LAST REMAINING LIGHT

Paolo Gentiloni, of the Italian Democrats,  has been appointed the new Prime Minister of Italy. Gentiloni, who served as foreign minister and was one of Matteo Renzi’s earliest supporters, is profiled in the FT here.  

COME TOGETHER

The Mirror calls for both Corbynites and Corbynsceptics to work together to address what it calls the “alarm bells” around the party’s poll rating. “As Corbyn supporters blame rebels and rebels blame Corbyn,” their leader says, “They miss the point that they actually share responsibility.”

THE SKY’S THE LIMIT

Rupert Murdoch has revived his attempt to take full ownership of Sky, of which he currently owns 39 per cent. His bid was derailed in 2011 by the phone hacking scandal. His hopes this time have been boosted by the changing fortunes of the political parties – and the shifting media landscape, which means that his hold over news consumption if the bid goes through will be considerably smaller than if it had in 2011. David Bond has a good profile in the FT.

I GIVE IT A YEAR

Diane Abbott has said that as the “noises off” from Labour’s Corbynsceptics continue to diminish, the party will close the gap on the Conservatives by this time next year. Peter Walker has the details in the Guardian. 

 

FROM BAD TO BORSE

The centre-right government in Frankfurt is saying that the proposed merger between the London Stock Exchange and Deutsche Borse should only go ahead if the new mega-exchange is domiciled in Frankfurt, where Deutsche Borse currently resides, to avoid being hit by a bad Brexit deal. 

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN

Monte dei Paschi is making a last-ditch attempt to raise the €5bn it needs to recapitalise and avoid a bailout that could see lenders hit with a €2.4bn loss. Rachel Sanderson has the story in the FT.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Kate meets Moby. On the agenda – America’s present discontents, the benefits of vegetarianism, and his battle against a new addiction: his mobile phone.

CHRISTMAS APPEAL

This year’s NS Christmas charity is Lumos. JK Rowling, its founder and the author of the Harry Potter books, talks about its work with Eddie Redmayne here. If you can, please donate here.

MUST READS

Italy is a huge threat to the Euro and the EU warns Wolfgang Munchau (FT)

I profile Manuel Valls, Europe’s last Blairite standing

Hollywood has always treated women as commodities, says Helen

Alison McGovern on the crisis in Aleppo (Mirror)

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