It was Nadine Dorries who started it. Of course it was. Earlier in the week, the culture secretary, a passionate Liz Truss supporter, tweeted to praise the foreign secretary for wearing earrings from Claire’s Accessories which had cost £4.50. By contrast, Rishi Sunak was sporting £450 Prada loafers and a bespoke suit worth £3,500.
No matter your opinion of either politician, when it comes to fashion choices like this week’s, neither candidate can ever win.
Rishi Sunak is a very wealthy man – it is estimated that he and his wife are worth £730 million. So it’s not surprising that he bowls around buying expensive clothes rather than finding bargains in charity shops. Let me remind you: you can spend a lot more than £3,500 on a bespoke suit: fancy clothes at Huntsman or Kilgour can take you towards five figures.
Rishi Sunak’s already off to a bad start for the judgemental out there. As a short man, he favours ultra-slim suits and skinny ties, which can look schoolboyish. But on the other hand, Truss hardly gains praise for her thriftiness: if the British public shudders at opulence it also expects a degree of dignity, and for those that judge Sunak’s spendiness, cheap earrings are also not compatible.
Can our political leaders strike the right balance? Rarely so. Former Labour MP Chuka Umunna was stylishly outfitted by Alexandra Wood, but his dapper appearance only provoked unease. He was too sleek, too polished.
But Jeremy Corbyn, that scruffy tribune of the people, was chided across the despatch box by David Cameron. “I know what my mother would say… ‘Put on a proper suit!’”
Perhaps the secret is not to care so much as Rishi Sunak does. Jacob Rees-Mogg is as much liked as loathed for his old-fashioned, baggy doublebreasted suits (made by tailors who remain anonymous), while Theresa May’s fashion was a humanising feature which seemed authentic.
I worked in the Commons for more than 10 years and saw MPs close up. Geoffrey Cox QC always wears quality threads, Dame Eleanor Laing knows a classic Tory blue dress when she sees one, while Sir Desmond Swayne likes stiff collars and highly polished shoes. (I did once have to chide a committee chairman for wearing suede shoes on a Thursday. He took it well.)
The sad truth is that, for politicians like Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, boring is safe. A plain suit for men and tidy skirt and jacket for women will win neither plaudits nor brickbats, and that is perhaps the best they can hope for. It is a shame. It would be heartening to celebrate our leaders for showing off the best of UK fashion – it’s an industry in which we can lead the world.