Over the weekend, the British political world was consumed by a surreal dispute around a pair of chocolate leather pants worn by the Prime Minister in a photoshoot.
The fashion piece, which Theresa May wore for a heart-to-heart interview with The Sunday Times on December 4th, prompted opponents to brand her out-of-touch for spending £995 ($1,263) on a single item.
The criticism – aired most prominently by Conservative MP Nicky Morgan – renewed the dispute over whether the British political class has anything in common with the ordinary voter.
But the seemingly trivial row has also been seized upon as something else – a masterclass in distraction while several things are going badly wrong for May’s administration.
— Theresa May Style (@theresamaystyle) December 11, 2016
Although the Morgan-May row took place last week, it was brought roaring to life again this weekend by anonymous leaks to newspapers, including the Mail on Sunday, which was passed text messages showing how Downing Street got its revenge.
By putting the (slightly tired) personal spat back onto the front pages, the PM’s media operation successfully neutered other potentially damaging stories – a fact that did not escape many commentators:
What could be making news – May v Boris rift, social care crisis & Brexit confusion.
What is – leather trousers
FI Hill deserves a pay rise
— Nick Robinson (@bbcnickrobinson) December 12, 2016
The Government’s embarrassing Supreme Court battle over how to trigger Brexit (which it may well lose); a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia; a crisis in healthcare – all went unremarked upon.
Instead political analysts pored over May’s much-documented passion for fashion, debated whether a man would be treated the same, and whether politicians are too out of touch.
The move has echoes of President-elect Donald Trump’s media strategy, whereby awkward questions about his cabinet, or business conflicts of interest, are swept away by a pugnacious and distracting tweet-storm.