Does Theresa May understand what life is like for the just-managing families she purports to stand for? The Tory party has seen a fair bit of snipping over the past few days over whether the Prime Minister’s £995 Amanda Wakeley trousers, which she wore for a newspaper interview and was then ridiculed about by one of the Cabinet ministers she sacked.
Nicky Morgan told the Times that ‘I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much on anything apart from my wedding dress’ and that the pricey garb had been ‘noticed and discussed’ in party circles.
You might expect that in order to look the part on the world stage, a leader would want to ensure his clothes were well-tailored and impressive. David Cameron did tend to stop any snipping about his off-duty clothing by wearing the same black polo shirt on every single holiday he went on, and he got terribly hot under the collar about whether he should look like a toff by wearing a morning suit to the Royal Wedding, something Boris Johnson rather pointedly ridiculed him for on the morning of the nuptials by turning up in tails and declaring on television that it was important to ‘look the part’.
The subject is still more fraught for female politicians as there are just more options than suit, morning suit, or black polo shirt. This is a mixed blessing, but it is one in which May seems to find more positives than negatives, revelling in wearing fashionable clothes by top designers. That’s just who she is, and it is surely better to be authentic like May, and indeed like Boris who didn’t fret about his Royal Wedding gear, than to look uncomfortable in one’s skin – and clothes – by pretending to be something, or someone, that you’re not.
As it happens, not all voters resent people spending their own money on things they like. An Essex MP pointed out to me a few years ago that their constituents simply could not understand why David Cameron travelled economy when he went on holiday: they knew he could afford business class, and when you have the money, you deserve to spend it on yourself, they said. Mind you, apparently those voters also didn’t like Boris all that much because he could afford a decent haircut but never went for one.
What Morgan is trying to suggest is that because May buys trousers worth nearly £1,000, she cannot possibly understand the lives of ordinary voters. If we are to be so literal about this, then neither can Morgan. As an MP, she draws a salary that is nearly three times the national average, and works in a Palace. There are plenty of tribulations involved in being an MP – it is not a comfortable life mentally or physically – but they are quite different to the pressures that ‘just-managing’ people face.
So is Morgan also disqualified from understanding ‘ordinary’ people? Not if she has that magic quality that all politicians need: empathy. You cannot pretend that you live as ordinary people do when you are an MP, even less so if you are behind security gates in Downing Street and cannot just pop out to Tesco Express when you fancy a bag of crisps. But you don’t need to. Doctors don’t need to have suffered from the myriad conditions they treat to empathise with their patients, counsellors do not need to have suffered from depression to be able to understand how the person sitting opposite them is struggling. This is the same line of argument as the ‘as a mother’ line which we have seen driven to destruction this year.
Understanding what someone’s life is like doesn’t have to involve putting their shoes on, expensive or not, but instead listening to them and feeling for them. You can’t wear empathy as a medal: it’s something you either have as an extraordinary gift or learn to develop because you know it will make you a better politician. And perhaps it will be a little more difficult to develop empathy if you are so busy fretting about trying to appear to be someone you’re not.