LONDON — British Labour Party leader Tony Blair is getting plenty of advice about the highs and lows of the recession - not in the economy, but where his brow meets his hair.
The issue began to get front page treatment in British newspapers after a reporter in London's sober and authoritative Financial Times (FT) reported Nov. 6 that Mr. Blair had "flattened his bouffant hairstyle as part of a campaign to build bridges with women voters."
The paper said that with a general election only six months away, Blair's hair had been identified in a MORI opinion poll as a reason that only 43 percent of female voters were satisfied with his leadership, compared with 60 percent of men.
The report immediately drew an angry rebuke from Labour Party spokesman Alistair Campbell, who declared with utter seriousness: "This is the blackest day in the FT's proud history of journalism. They have printed a totally untrue story about Tony Blair's hairstyle."
Perhaps realizing - or having been told - that his response was over the top, Mr. Campbell then backtracked.
He issued a "clarifying statement" headed "FT goes mad in 'hair-brained' snip scoop shocker." The statement was signed "Alasthair Crimpbell."
But the damage had been done.
Labour officials privately acknowledged that their leader does indeed face a "gender gap" and contrasted his low rating among women with the 58 percent of American women who voted for President Clinton Nov. 5.
Every national newspaper began exploring the alleged connection between Blair's hair and his apparently poor ratings among women voters.
The London Times said there was no point in "brushing the hair debate aside." In an editorial, the paper described Blair as the "hair apparent" of British politics.
The Daily Telegraph advised Blair: "There is no short cut to solving your problem."
The Daily Mail turned to thick-thatched Prime Minister John Major's press spokesman, who responded: "In terms of style wars, the prime minister's full head of hair stands up and is counted in its own right."
As one newspaper wheeled out a historian to remind the nation that Britain has not had a bald prime minister since Winston Churchill, George Parker, whose report in the FT had sparked the "Blair hair scare," produced a follow-up story "by the FT's fringe issues correspondent."
He reported that he had telephoned Blair, who confessed: "My problem is not changing my hair - it's keeping it."
His comment confirmed a report that had appeared during last September's annual Labour Party conference.
As Blair was addressing delegates, a Labour spin doctor was reported to have advised a fellow imagemaker: "Do something about the hair."
Since the hair scare broke, the Blair hair has been noticeably nonbouffant. But his flatter hair has had a mixed impact on members of the opposite sex.
Is the FT going to pursue the topic with another hair piece? Not if Mr. Parker has anything to do with it.
He says he's far too busy for that, what with having to write a story "about President Clinton's cufflinks."