Boris Johnson Cuts To The Chase In The Leadership Race

With Boris openly declaring his intention to challenge Theresa May’s leadership last week, perhaps it’s no wonder he’s had a makeover

Boris Johnson

by Gaby Hinsliff |
Updated on

Once upon a time, the giveaway sign of an ambitious male politician was wheeling out his wife in public. But the collective eye-roll at Westminster when the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently gushed about his ‘perfect partner’ Lucia, or when Dominic Raab’s wife Erika told a newspaper how the former Brexit Secretary wooed her with romantic picnics, was strangely telling.

Parading your partner feels rather retro in an age when women are running for leader in their own right. With everyone on red alert for a leadership contest, after Theresa May last week let it be known she intends to be gone by the end of July at the latest – and Boris Johnson declared that ‘of course’ he would go for her job – the new power move is getting a male makeover.

Matt Hancock, the super-ambitious Health Secretary, recently rocked up to a speech in Soho sporting a look (tight tee, jeans and trainers) variously described on social media as ‘undercover cop’, ‘bit Alan Partridge’ and ‘when your dad is newly single and you dress him for a dinner date’. But it arguably all started with Boris Johnson, who lost close to a stone in the run-up to Christmas (when rebels first tried and failed to oust the Prime Minister) and gained a new, cropped haircut.

An early sign, meanwhile, that Johnny Mercer, the former army officer turned Tory MP, might seek a higher profile came in a plaintive email from wife Felicity, asking friends to recommend a tailor. ‘Johnny is typical army commando shape, with big thighs, and I can’t get suits to fit him,’ she explained. ‘As well as the fact that taking him shopping means more whingeing than a five-year-old.’ That the email became public when her amused husband shared it on social media suggests styling is no longer a dirty secret, with even men now resigned to the scrutiny women have long endured.

In theory, May can’t face a formal leadership challenge for another year under party rules. But, in practice, it’s a dangerous month for her. Having lost over 1,300 council seats in the local elections just over a fortnight ago, at this week’s European elections Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is threatening to inflict a humiliating defeat, which could mean fresh pressure for her resignation. So leadership candidates are limbering up – and while in the end it’s policy that matters, the rise of social media means the visuals have never been more critical. Running for leader in 2019 means swapping written statements for films uploaded to Facebook, showing off your hinterland on Instagram, and learning how to use what the Cabinet hopeful Liz Truss calls ‘pops of colour’ to catch the eye on social media.

‘Years ago, you might attend an event and never see a picture of yourself. Now MPs can see what they look like, if they’re carrying a few pounds more and feeling conscious of it,’ says Jo Tanner, a former Tory aide turned co-founder of the PR agency iNHouse Communications. She thinks the stakes have risen since she and her business partner Katie Perrior, who served as spin doctors on Johnson’s campaign for the London mayoralty, gave him his first makeover.

Back then, the challenges were persuading him out of oversized suits – bought for ease of cycling in – and tackling his shoes. Tanner says, ‘Boris would have holes in his shoes, because he’d use his feet as brakes rather the brakes on his bike. There’s nothing worse than a politician stretching his legs out onstage and seeing holes in his shoes.’ Since Johnson was banned from cycling on security grounds, after becoming Foreign Secretary, that shouldn’t be an issue now, but maintaining the snappier hairstyle might be a struggle. Tanner persuaded him to get it cut for the London campaign too, but it didn’t last: ‘He lets it get longer and starts rumpling it...’

Westminster hasn’t yet reached the grooming standards prevalent in Washington, where senators and congresspeople so routinely resort to Botox – usually to fix sweaty brows or drooping chins, not wrinkles – that one clinic in the city reportedly has a separate entrance for Secret Service personnel escorting political VIPs. (Despite rumours during the last leadership contest that Michael Gove had Botox, apparently stemming from a joke cracked by an ex-journalist colleague, the closest he seems to have come to a makeover this time is being spotted occasionally without his glasses.)

But a younger, fitter generation of male MPs, more likely to be found training for marathons than sinking pints, is raising the bar. Being seen to look after yourself matters now, says Ayesha Hazarika, the Evening Standard columnist and former aide to Ed Miliband. ‘I thought it was very interesting, Boris’s makeover. That’s somebody who is absolutely verbalising to the world “I’m ready for this”. Women have had this for a long, long time now, but if you want the top job, men are expected to look a certain way, too.’

And while being overly image-conscious is frowned upon, many voters instinctively associate smartness with seriousness. ‘My view of tailoring is that it shows a level of respect to the work you’re doing and the people you’re meeting with,’ says Alexandra Wood, the Savile Row tailor behind the famously well-dressed Labour-turned-Change UK MP Chuka Umunna’s bespoke suits.

With even Jeremy Corbyn restyled for GQ’s cover in a navy suit, perhaps the writing really is on the wall for Westminster’s scruffs

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