When I was at Oxford no one — as in no one who was anyone — would have dreamt of speaking to those who were openly Conservative.
Undergraduates in the Conservative Association scuttled from dining society to prayer meetings in egg-stained tweed, greasy lanks of hair covering acne-scarred foreheads, untroubled by female attention for years on end. In fact, for most of my adult life there was only one supposedly attractive Tory politician — my brothers aside, of course — Michael Heseltine. President Mitterrand found Mrs T to possess ‘the eyes of Caligula, the lips of Marilyn Monroe’, and Alan Clark definitely had the careless charisma of the shit-in-the-shires, but still, in a quarter of a century, there was only one ‘Me Tarzan’ candidate for the ‘You Jane’ vote. Not a brilliant record.
These days, everything has changed. Now, what you look like often matters more than what you say — I refer you to the theory of ‘erotic capital’ — and so has the physical composition of our political parties. Typically, it took Robin Cook to spell this out. After the death of John Smith in 1994, Cook ruled himself out of the race to be the next Labour leader on the grounds that he was ‘insufficiently attractive’. With the gingery Scottish gnome out of the frame, the field was clear for Tony Blair, with his Milk Tray physique and extravagant barnet, to scoop the prize.
It’s not fair, but it’s a fact. Appearances have become supremely important, especially when there’s no money and all three parties are duking it out for distinctiveness over the same plot of centre ground. Women who are brave enough to go on television know that the viewers are only looking at their hair and their choice of top, and not listening to a word they say, deciding whether they like them or not on the basis of a two-second shot of their pancaked mug. The same withering running commentary on Twitter and snap judgments are increasingly applied to men too.
This is bad news for ambitious people to whom the looks fairy has been less than generous. Now that we live in a visual culture, trolls are unlikely to make it to the top — totty does. And it may also, as recent research suggests, be bad news for the left. A Finnish outfit called the Ratio Institute did a survey in which 513 non-Finns evaluated the facial appearance of 1,357 Finnish political candidates. The right-wing candidates were judged better-looking and got more votes. So the result of the exercise was this: not only was beauty an advantage, the right made better use of it.
To judge by my own experiences, the results hold true for Britain as well as Finland. True, I used to have a recurring dream about Tony Blair (I’ll spare you the details. Oh alright then, Blair was sort of there, but also sort of not there, if you know what I mean, and then we… and then he turned into Gordon Brown and I woke up). But the reason I joined the Conservative party, aged 40, was because I thoroughly enjoyed sitting next to David Cameron at a dinner party, and the last Tory event I attended — the Black and White Ball — was like a Pantene convention: I’d never seen so many shiny, glossy people, and that’s just the spads, and I haven’t even mentioned Zac Goldsmith yet.
If you were wondering why Jeremy Paxman spent almost ten tender, lingering minutes asking the MP on Newsnight what his take was on changes to the national planning policy framework (despite Goldsmith holding no brief for Cameron on this), I can hazard a guess. Zac is cute. Very telegenic indeed, as though carved by angels out of caramel, though we cannot go so far as to say that the reason the Labour incumbent of Richmond Park and North Kingston was booted out for the millionaire Tory was because the latter was better-looking — as many Tories are, as we have already established.
‘Of course, it’s Cameron who sets the tone,’ agrees Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail. ‘The Lib Dems are still sackcloth and ashes and haven’t moved on from sandals at all, but Cameron’s very, very attractive: the best head of hair since Mrs T. In the old days, you wouldn’t want to go near the Tories, but now the conference is bursting with testosterone! I went to a rally for the Mayor and discovered they are no longer attended by the blue-rinse brigade; at least half of them were under 30. They want to look good — even the women!’
Style guru Peter York agrees that the Tories are no longer what he calls Rugby Sloanes any more. ‘MPs have to play the game, and be more commercial and image-conscious,’ he observes. ‘So many now have backgrounds in PR, media, journalism, consultancy, they’re tuned to the bi-coastal, US culture of appearances, and they’re fired in the crucible of Mayfair-St James hedge-fund culture, both of which are fantastically lookist.’
To mark the conference season, as an amusing gimmick, Sky News now circulates MP Top Trumps cards. They also introduced a new deck to mark this past Valentine’s Day. The deck analyses MPs in several categories, but the only one people actually care about — i.e. their fanciability — is being won hands down by one party.
‘We’ve been booking MPs for years and suddenly we realised there were some good-looking ones,’ says Sky producer Katie Snape. ‘A lot of Tories, Jeremy Hunt, Louise Mensch, Kwasi Kwarteng, all scored highly on the key “fanciability factor” when our rigorous all-female team, with the assistance of several bottles of wine, went around rating them very scientifically by bunging stickers on photographs we’d stuck around the room.’ And? ‘The Tories were almost all hotter than Labour,’ says Snape.
I know what you’re thinking: that can’t be right, Winston Churchill was no oil painting. But you forget — Winston Churchill never did a television interview. ‘Ever since television started, what politicians look like has never been more important,’ says Michael Cockerell, author of Live from Number Ten. Basically, the evidence is that a politician’s impact is 90 per cent the way they look and 10 per cent what they say. I remember watching a major interview, Robin Day doing Thatcher, while sitting next to a political bigwig. It ended. He turned to me and all he said was, “her roots need doing”.’
So there we have it. In the old days, politics was showbiz for ugly people. Now, with a 24-hour news cycle and cameras in the Commons, maybe politics is just… showbiz. ‘Politics is a televisual medium and you can’t look like Jeremy Corbyn, all beardy and ink-stained, any more,’ concludes Snape. ‘To succeed in politics, you have to be attractive but not threateningly so.’
I rest my case. Not only do looks matter, but the fact that looks matter matters too.