Any political elite finds itself defined not only by policies but also by cultural objects and styles. Cameron and Clegg are top table dressed as middle managementby Sam Leith / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
On the morning of 12th May, David Cameron welcomed Nick Clegg, his coalition partner and new deputy prime minister, into Downing Street for the first time. Regardless of the colour of one’s political premonitions—nobody, let’s face it, had the first idea what to expect—it was a scene to bring a smile to the face of even Gordon Brown. They looked so similar. And the Gilbert-and-George comedy of their doorstep body language—Clegg planted a paternal guiding hand on Cameron’s back; Cameron, not to be patronised, reversed the hold as they passed through the door—deepened the pleasure in the scene.
Here were two smooth-faced former public-school boys with slightly bouffey short brown hair. Here were two single-breasted blue suits done up at the top button. Here were two ties that gave a plutocratic sheen to their party colours—Cameron’s blue tinged with imperial purple; Clegg’s yellow burnished with gold. And here were two shirts-of-the-people: single-cuffed, with fixed buttons at the wrist. Even in their sartorial eccentricities, both men are alike. Clegg and Cameron both favour five-button suit cuffs, a departure from the three- or four-button tradition, called “Bullingdon bling.” We let pass without comment the fact that the other well-known five-button men are the Prince of Wales and Tony Blair.
Their suits were only a shade apart, but the linings they conceal are rather different. Both leaders are, so to speak, front men—well-scrubbed incarnations of centrist politics; but with a great hinterland of the more traditional party faithful behind them. And judging by the vote that got them to this point, the electorate saw that. If the unreformed Tory hinterland—the lining, metaphorically, of Cameron’s sharp blue suit—is unstylish, the Liberal Democrat hinterland is more or less anti-style. I mean that in a good way. The caricature of the Lib-Dem activist—sandalled and beaded; wispy of beard and wispier of opinion—has now glommed onto the Greens. But for the yellows, who don’t really win trendy urban seats, the boilerplate style is not that of Clegg or of his high-powered and super-chic lawyer wife, Miriam. It is of an intelligent and well-educated public-sector worker in late middle age, who doesn’t see the point in wasting time debobbling a jumper. Think of the most visible Lib Dems. More ubiquitous even than Clegg during the election has been his party’s former communications chief, Olly Grender, who projects the aura of a kindly primary school teacher who dabbles in Wicca. Or the redoubtable Shirley Williams, who always looks like she should be wearing gardening gloves. Or Vince Cable, whose raincoat, hairy ears and mischievous smirk suggest a benign flasher from a 1970s cartoon.
But the sight of these two men in suits, nevertheless, says something about the future of both parties. This is what we elected: male, young, privileged, progressive; top table dressed as middle management. This is “coalition style.” Any political elite finds itself defined not only by policies and buzzwords, but by cultural objects and styles. These keynotes, before long, simmer into cliché. A previous generation of Tories, for instance, are identified with wide chalkstripes, whitebait at Wilton’s, rubber chicken in the shires and drinks at the club. The cultural markers that defined new Labour are so well-established as to seem parodic: the sun-dried tomato and polenta in the River Café or Granita; the sound of Britpop; the pager with a whip on the end of it; the N1 postcode; the trip to Tuscany; the preoccupation with branding, clumsily spoofed by right-wing blogosphere blimps. Already, a few such markers have attached themselves to the Cameroons: the windmill on the roof, the cycle helmet, Samantha Cameron’s M&S frock—and of course, the group photograph of Oxford’s clique of aristocratic yahoos, the Bullingdon club.
I don’t think it’s foolish to see style—or a perceived style—as important: the Camerons took aggressive action to suppress that Bullingdon photograph for a good reason. The aspects of new Labour that would have seemed spivvy to their core vote—remember the apocryphal story of Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas for guacamole in a chip shop—were the aspects that sold them to well-off urbanites. The style markers for the Liberal Democrat leadership are less of a known quantity. One doesn’t talk about “Cleggites” as one talks about Cameroons. You might see a gang, centred perhaps on involvement in the 2004 Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism, but the same social homogeneity of the Notting Hill Tories isn’t there. Indeed, the congruence of Clegg with Cameron makes him, stylistically, an honorary Cameroon.
The cultural feel of the Cameron ascendancy—something that its leaders can only half control—is tangible. The party leadership was a social network before it was a political one. It has a foot in moneyed London and a foot in the moneyed home counties. It plays tennis rather than football. Its wife does yoga—Samantha Cameron is “a serious yoga babe”—and is likely to have a career as high-powered as her husband’s. It also doesn’t go out much: it’s more likely to cook macaroni cheese at home. It dresses for work like a hip management consultant and for play like a fugitive model from the Boden catalogue: what one observer calls the “I-dress-from-Gap-but-actually-have-a-lot-more-money-than-that” thing.
Above all it is defined by a demographic fact: both about its leaders and the constituency they see as central to their appeal. They are double-income professionals with young children. Cameron profited from this all he could. But it wasn’t he who decided that this would be “the Mumsnet election,” and Clegg—with his three young sons—benefited too. New Labour was not full of families with children and babies. Until the arrival at cabinet level of the Balls/Miliband generation, it was not a political class that spent a great deal of its time changing nappies. The Tories are, and this has had an effect not just on their style as a generation, but on policy. “When strategy chief Steve Hilton became a father,” one observer says, “he was the first one of them to have had a child, and a lot of policy came out of it.”
If the obsession with leaders’ wives continues to run—and it probably will what with Samantha looking demure, pregnant and wearing killer heels—an interesting contrast arises. SamCam may be a successful professional, who is still working part-time after resigning her full-time job, but as a political wife she sends out no signals that will frighten the more traditional Tory voters. Her maternity frocks, tied under the bosom, seem designed to show off her bump. As she watched her husband speak outside Downing Street she clasped her hands at her lap, framing junior nicely. The dress she wore to do the school run on the first morning of Cameron’s premiership, she allowed to be known, was borrowed from a friend. And her high-powered job is, well, designing posh stationery.
For this generation’s Cherie Blair figure, surely, we look to Clegg’s wife. Miriam Gonzalez Durantez—whose dark good looks and Spanish blood are an invitation to caption-writers to use words like “smouldering” and “fiery”—declined to play arm candy in the election campaign, concentrating instead on her work as the section chief of a multinational law firm.
Conscious branding, of course, has long been part of the picture. New Labour had its war on facial hair; Cameron’s Conservatives, even more comically, wondered if their candidate Annunziata Rees-Mogg would mind rebranding herself as “Nancy Mogg.” Who knows whether she would have won her seat if she had. The Tories sought advice from the women-oriented marketing consultancy Pretty Little Head, and recruited Anna-Maren Ashford, a young ad woman who had never voted Tory, as head of brand communications. These influences were credited with changing the party’s logo from a “phallic” torch to an “organic” oak tree. (Those whose phalluses are organic might wonder about this, but there we are.)
A pre-election photoshoot of Tory candidates for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine was heavily styled: novelist Louise Bagshawe, who went on to win Corby, was lit with a metallic sheen, chin set, eyes fixed on the future. She wore a black polo neck and iPod earphones. Rory Stewart and Nicholas Boles were both pictured staring intensely off camera. Stewart, the victor in Penrith and the Border, was given the collar-up black coat of the international man of mystery he is; Boles, who won Grantham, looked like a study for the death mask of a Roman orator. On the cover was Shaun Bailey, candidate for Hammersmith and Fulham, with his bald brown bonce emerging from a fur collar as if he was appearing as the pop star Seal on Stars in Their Eyes. The columnist Cristina Odone speculated that this could have been a rebrand too far. Bailey, who also appeared in a similar “Tory totty” shoot for Tatler in 2008, didn’t win his seat. Also in that shoot was another A-list upset, Joanne Cash, who failed to take Westminster North.
The new Tories’ London centre of gravity is as firmly in Notting Hill—or, more exactly, north Kensington—as their predecessors’ was in Islington. The Cleggs live in a pricy house in Putney, a more suburban environment but demographically more or less identical. But where new Labour was urban, the new Tory establishment (and in this it resembles the old one) likes to weekend in the country. Many witnesses testify to hearty, pig-feeding, veg-patch tending, Cath-Kidston-welly-boot antics. The Lib-Dem heartlands, again, are not for the most part urban; though Clegg’s Sheffield constituency presents a contrast to those of his coalition partners.
“The rural thing is very important,” says one observer of the Tories. “The Camerons’ constituency home, Dean, is where their son Ivan is buried. It’s sort of Jeremy Clarkson countryside: an Aga for show rather than reviving baby lambs. But you grow veg, go to the point-to-point and the village fete… and that’s where they bridge the gap with the old shire Tories. They do the countryside in a slightly different way—when the Camerons talk about rural issues they mean things like broadband provision—but they do get the countryside.”
That reference to rural broadband, like Bagshawe’s earphones, picks up another cultural theme. While Blair didn’t use a computer or text, the new political class is at ease with a networked world. “They download music and they don’t just buy an iPod so they can say they’ve got an iPod. They consume media like under-35s.” Kidulthood is the watchword. Arts minister Ed Vaizey owns a Nintendo Wii and plays Super Mario at least enough to notice that mushrooms are involved. In Clegg’s battle bus, an Xbox 360 was in evidence. Cameron strode on stage to the Killers. When he met Obama, he presented him with a stack of CDs including the Smiths, Radiohead, Gorillaz and Lily Allen—though that bespeaks an exercise in cultural triangulation more than coherent taste.
The widely read blogger and sometime Tory candidate Iain Dale says: “You have to split out Cameron and his circle from the party itself. But the party is changing. Now, if you go to a Tory event, you don’t feel you stand out if you’re not wearing a suit.” That change is in sympathy with the Cameroonian vibe—but it is not identical in either pace or extent.
The current Tory leadership were given the sobriquet the “Notting Hill set” years ago. They were a coherent, identifiable group, and their make-up hasn’t changed much. “They were all friends before they were politicians—that’s quite important,” says one insider. “New Labour was all about politics. For the Tories the politics is important, but not the only thing. New Labour happened in restaurants. The new Tories have lots of suppers at home and Sunday lunches. And the women are always there… Children are a large part of this. The kids all know each other and all play together.”
Two separate people interviewed for this piece, when asked to identify a chef with the new Tories, said Jamie Oliver. “A lot of shove-the-lamb-in stuff. Roast chicken, roast lamb, stews…” said one. “And for holidays we hire villas—Scotland, Cornwall, France. When you’ve got children you don’t want to spend more than three hours travelling.” The family holiday is another instance of the extent to which Clegg is socially compatible with the Cameroons. As the Mail took no small pleasure in revealing, his family owns a ten-bedroom château in southwest France, and a chalet in the Swiss Alps.
The Conservative wives—who think of themselves as a coherent social group—mostly identify with the posh end of the high street. Samantha Cameron, inevitably, dresses up more. Her job—“She thinks of herself as a designer: it’s what she’s done for 15 years,” says a friend—gives her access to fashion sales. It was her job that put her in touch, too, with Canadian designer Erdem Moralioglu. He was signed up for a project with the luxury stationer Smythson, where Cameron is a creative consultant. “You’ll see her in a designer dress, but she’ll have got it for £600 in the sale,” her friend continues. “She likes Bruce Oldfield. She wears a lot of Joseph. And Reiss.” Shoes? LK Bennett rather than Patrick Cox? “Not LK Bennett. That’s too much twentysomething Sloane. She spends a lot of time in Zara.”
Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast in Britain, identifies the boilerplate look for the male Cameroon as “dark suit and open-necked white shirt—pinstripes are a fusty-pants old fogey look… There’s a conscious neutrality. It’s slightly classless, slightly businesslike, slightly Reservoir Dogs. I think Cameron’s look has been influential already. If you go to any cool parties now there are always a lot of young men dressed in le style Cameron. The exception is Steve Hilton, of course, who looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo.”
“Nobody dresses like Steve,” agrees another Tory insider. “He dresses like a tramp. Literally.” If Clegg resembles an honorary Cameroon, it might be said, Hilton is—presentationally, at least—an honorary Liberal Democrat.
And so here we are. Cameron and Clegg both tried and failed to bottle the same lightning Blair caught in 1997. Now, therefore, we have two men in blue suits outside Downing Street instead of one. And if their shared style recalls new Labour much more than it reflects the base of either of their parties, it still offers a starting point. The task ahead, for this political Eric and Ernie, is to bring us sunshine.