A couple of years ago a perky female MP stood up in the Commons with a bit of boob on display. There were titters from Twitterers and raised eyebrows about her cleavage at the more downmarket end of political journalism, where I usually dwell.
Given that she was not just a Labour MP but the sort elected from an all-women shortlist, all hell broke loose. Colleagues were ‘outraged’, comment pieces were filed and puritan campaigners rushed out press releases. At one point I thought they were going to hang poor Toby Young. ‘Women who have made it into Parliament must fight an uphill battle,’ said the gorgeously named feminist Anna Bird from the Fawcett Society. A. Bird continued: ‘It’s hard to believe this is British politics in the 21st century.’ But is this obsession with looks an exclusively female problem? I think not.
There’s a joke doing the rounds in Westminster that you can tell how severe the terror threat is by how tight the PM’s suit gets. The larger his waistline, the more likely it is that the jihadis are coming, as Dave has been unable to break out of No. 10 for his early morning run around St James Park. Heaven help us if A. Bird had been in the pub when such a personal comment were made about a woman.
Things are not much better for George Osborne either. A search of Google News about the Chancellor’s hair brings up some 39,700 results. Gossip about Osborne’s tonsorial austerity, plus his new slimmed-down physique, were some of the most popular talking points of this parliament. ‘Et tu, Osborne?’ wrote the Guardian of his ‘Caesar-style makeover’. Glamour magazine has described it as ‘Lego-esque’, while the Mirror claims ‘he looks more like a Playmobil policeman’. ‘George Osborne delivered a serious speech for serious times,’ said the Telegraph, ‘but everyone was looking at his Madchester hair.’
There are 3,310 news articles listed by Google that describe new-Osborne as ‘svelte’, but he’s far from the only politician to drop a few pounds using a celeb craze diet, the 5:2. There were plenty of column inches regarding Alex Salmond’s pre-referendum toning, while Osborne’s shadow Ed Balls is a shadow of his former tubby self. Balls credits the two-day fasting diet and running the marathon. How do we know? Because it’s been written about in depth, again and again. Westminster’s men have become so associated with the 5:2 that the diet’s creator, Mimi Foster, has broken her silence: ‘The regime works well with a political lifestyle. Bon viveurs can still have large business lunches or formal dining events in the evenings, and very busy people cope well with the fast days. I imagine George Osborne is dashing from pillar to post and so he has the capacity to cope well with low-calorie days,’ she told a broadsheet.
Westminster is obsessed with looks. It’s not sexism, just how shallow our 24-hour, 140-character politics has become. Knowing that it would be a hugely popular story, I spent the better part of a day trying to stand up a tip that Ed Miliband had had a series of ‘chemical facial peels’ and a round of Botox over the Whitsun recess last year. Miliband’s rumoured ‘nose job’ — in fact a standard adenoids removal procedure — was given forensic Sunday tabloid analysis. His transformation from dorky brother in 2010 to the dorky-ish leader in 2015 has been followed with hawklike attention, not least by those who have sat opposite the Labour leader every Wednesday for half a decade.
Tory MP David Morris was a hairdresser — among other things — before entering parliament and considers himself something of an expert on the making of Mr Miliband: ‘When Axelrod came along his hairstyle changed to emulate an American senator’s,’ says Morris, crediting Obama’s campaign guru David Axelrod with the death of the Labour leader’s buzz-cut and his new heavily lacquered two-inch ‘do’. He adds: ‘A couple of my friends in the trade have remarked that, although he’s a very handsome man, the shading of his hair as all his own is questionable.’
Yes, politicos talk about women’s hair and legs and — on occasion — cleavage. Yes, the papers write about what women politicians wear. Yes, they even put pictures of newly appointed female cabinet members in a tacky double-page Downing Street ‘catwalk’ spread, but the idea that men’s looks don’t come under intense scrutiny, both in print and by mouth, is demonstrably false. And we haven’t even got round to mentioning the baldies yet…