Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, and the politics of scruffiness

Why do some politicians get away with looking a state, while others are condemned for it?

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In April 2016, I shadowed then First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones on the campaign trail ahead of the Welsh Assembly elections.

I always remember something he mentioned in passing while out and about, a comment so throwaway I didn’t bother reporting. He said that you could always tell a politician’s background by their doorknocking attire. Working-class politicians wear suits while out on the road; middle or upper class ones wear jeans. Jones was wearing a full suit and tie at the time.

It’s this observation that came to mind when I saw the HuffPost’s Paul Waugh drawing attention to Boris Johnson’s scruffy state when meeting military families:


It’s true, Johnson looks an absolute state in the footage. His hair’s a mess, his face looks haggard with big bags under his eyes, and his jacket hangs open while everyone else’s is neatly buttoned up.

When Jeremy Corbyn used to be scruffier – his look has been altered since his early days as leader – it was a Westminster talking point. His aides felt they had to refresh his appearance, an LSE study found that 69 per cent of newspaper articles attacking Corbyn mentioned his looks, clothing or habits, and David Cameron even mentioned it at the despatch box during PMQs:

“I know what my mother would say. I think she’d look across the despatch box and she’d say: ‘Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’.”

A few left-wing commentators at the time argued that the then prime minister’s mask had slipped, revealing his snobbery and entitlement – his world of black tie dinners and pricey suits.

But actually the class aspect of politicians’ appearance is more complicated. As Jones suggested to me three years ago, it’s the posher politicians who feel comfortable looking shabby or casual in front of the public – and it’s a conscious choice.

In fact, there are multiple reports of Johnson mussing his hair up before speeches on purpose to achieve the rumpled look that Brits seem to forgive in the upper classes. This goes back to something I covered in more depth, when Jacob Rees-Mogg was captured lounging on the government front benches during a crucial Brexit debate. It’s the idea of “embodied cultural capital”, in the words of the academic Sam Friedman, an LSE sociology professor who’s researched such phenomena in his book, The Class Ceiling.

From his research, Friedman has found that if your background chimes with the culture of your occupation (the old Etonian Johnson in Downing Street, for example), then this can manifest as “an embodied confidence around how you can be, and how emboldened you are to play with the rules of the game in that environment,” he told me. “It’s a sense of being able to feel so confident in the way you occupy this professional space that you can go against the formal rules.”

Indeed, going by his past successes, it appears Johnson’s shambolic air hasn’t damaged him electorally so far. And despite that beard the tabloids found so offensive, Corbyn didn’t turn as many people off as expected in 2017. So the jury’s out on whether or not voters truly care about this kind of thing, whatever someone’s background. The double standards of the press on this issue, however, are naked for all to see.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.