Theresa May's leather trousers prompt political row

By Tom Moseley
Political reporter

Image source, Sunday Times/News Syndication

Newspaper headlines about rows within political parties are nothing new - but this one seems to have been sparked by a pair of leather trousers. Here's how it all unfolded.

It's just over a fortnight since Theresa May gave an "at home" interview to the Sunday Times, telling the paper about her childhood and explaining how Brexit keeps her awake at night. But it was her choice of trousers - which cost a reported £995 - that provoked most discussion.

'Noticed and discussed'

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Former education secretary Nicky Morgan questioned the PM's trouser choice

"I don't have leather trousers. I don't think I've ever spent that much on anything apart from my wedding dress," former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told The Times, adding that the trousers had been "noticed and discussed" in Tory circles.

She added: "My barometer is always: 'How am I going to explain this in Loughborough market?"'

It was at this point that the story really took off, with another Conservative backbench MP, Nadine Dorries, taking Mrs Morgan to task.

"I think it shows Nicky Morgan's comments were sexist, because she never criticised David Cameron's extremely expensive suits," she told the Daily Mail.

Mrs Morgan then found herself "disinvited" to a meeting at Downing Street to discuss Brexit, The Guardian reported.

Asked during a visit to Bahrain about the suggestion the price tag of the trousers made her "out of touch", the PM spoke of "the importance of a country that works for everyone", saying she had travelled around the country and "met people in a whole variety of circumstances".

'Toxic texts'

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Theresa May's adviser Fiona Hill (right) reportedly clashed with Nicky Morgan

But the story, inevitably by now dubbed "trousergate", was not going away, and at the weekend the Mail on Sunday revealed a terse exchange of text messages involving Mrs Morgan and the PM's joint chief of staff, Fiona Hill.

After Ms Hill texted ex-Conservative minister Alistair Burt, who had also been invited to the meeting at Downing Street, to tell him "don't bring that woman to No 10 again", Mrs Morgan found out about the message, the paper reported.

"If you don't like something I have said or done, please tell me directly. No man brings me to any meeting," she wrote to Ms Hill.

"Your team invites me. If you don't want my views in future meetings you need to tell them."

Ms Hill replied: "Well, he just did. So there!"

Is it really about trousers?

While the Amanda Wakeley-designed "bitter chocolate" clothing has made the headlines, the spat plays into a wider row, largely about Brexit.

Mrs Morgan, who was sacked as education secretary by the PM when she took over in Number 10, has been vocal in calling on the government to set out details of its EU exit strategy, despite its refusal to offer a "running commentary".

She has warned about quitting the EU single market in a "hard Brexit" of the kind favoured by some in government and has said MPs should be given a say on the deal struck with Brussels.

Image caption,
The PM's trousers are a hit on Google searches

Brexit aside, leaked letters recently revealed a clash between Mrs Morgan and Mrs May over plans to "deprioritise" the children of illegal immigrants in school.

Mrs Morgan has also attacked government plans to expand grammar schools, saying they risked "undermining" recent progress in schools.

None of this is likely to have endeared the Loughborough MP - who considered her own leadership bid in the summer before throwing her weight behind Michael Gove - to the PM.

Media caption,
Are the Remainers now leading the resistance? Adam Fleming reports.

Asked about her stance on Brexit, she told the BBC's Sunday Politics: "I feel as though I'm one of the people who's stuck my head above the parapet.

"If you do that you're likely to attract attention, you're likely to attract abuse but also levels of support."

She added: "I just think as a backbench member of Parliament you've got to be there, particularly when we have a very weak opposition, to ask the questions that government needs to be scrutinised on before we embark on such a huge issue."

Looking for leadership clues

Does the row tell us anything about Theresa May's leadership style? Some pundits think so.

Matthew Norman, in the i, thinks the PM made a mistake by disclosing her sense of irritation. He writes: "To reveal such brittleness about something so minor hints at deeper and more dangerous insecurities."

In its leading article, the Times says: "We get few glimpses of Team May's true tone of voice, but this is one, and its childishness is troubling. Mrs May needs to develop a thicker skin."

Dominic Lawson, writing in the Daily Mail, also finds the episode "highly revealing", but he thinks it shows that Mrs May "is her own woman in public as well as private," describing "a welcome return to unaffectedness".

'Tedious' and 'impertinent'

Former chancellor Ken Clarke has not been impressed, telling the Sunday Politics it was "tedious" that stories about what women politicians were wearing featured in the newspapers.

"I feel sorry for women in politics," he said. "I'm glad to say men in politics don't have great news stories about what they are wearing.

"In my case, apart from my suede shoes, I'm probably very lucky because I'm not a very snappy dresser.

"Nicky and Theresa, I hope, will have some serious political discussions. If they want to have an argument about what they are wearing I think all their closest friends would advise them to keep that private."

Image source, UK Parliament
Image caption,
Theresa May and Nicky Morgan have clashed on several areas of government policy

Another pro-EU Conservative, Sir Nicholas Soames, said her comments about the PM's trousers were "completely unacceptable" saying they "succeeded in trivialising a very important argument that a group of us was making about Brexit".

Tory MP Des Swayne told BBC Radio 4's the Westminster Hour her remarks were "impertinent", adding: "I'm afraid I come from a background where it was always rude to talk about money and certainly to talk about what people's clothes cost."

Perhaps wisely, another former education secretary who was sacked from cabinet by Theresa May - Michael Gove - was cautious when Sky News asked him the most he had ever spent on a pair of trousers.

"One of the things I've learned over the last 72 hours is that politicians should not provide fashion commentary," he replied.