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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.

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