Britain's Conservatives Try But Fail to Dress for Success

MPs at seaside 'bonding session' asked to dress down. But few could agree on attire. Is a black leather cap 'casual'?

Britain's Conservative Party for several years has been tormented by divisions over Europe. It was the policy fault line that contributed to its loss in the May 1 general election.

Now, new leader William Hague has discovered another gaping hole in Conservative ranks: disagreement over sartorial style.

Struggling to instill a new sense of unity among his often bickering Members of Parliament, Mr. Hague, a former management consultant, summoned them to what he called a two-day "bonding session" last week at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne. Hague ordered his troops to dress in "relaxed and casual style."

In the party's more than 200-year history no Conservative leader had ever tried such a thing, and when they began arriving at the plush seaside resort it soon became clear that there were as many ideas on what "relaxed and casual" meant as there were Tory MPs.

Former Environment Secretary John Gummer, a member of an older Conservative generation, turned up in a formal suit.

Bernard Jenkin, a junior colleague, wore a checked jacket and jeans, set off by round black mirrored sunglasses.

Heads turned on the Eastbourne waterfront when Douglas Hogg, who as agriculture minister in the last government had to cope with the "mad cow" disease controversy, revealed himself in a woolen sweater, corduroy trousers, rubber-soled walking boots, and a battered fedora.

Another MP sported a jaunty black leather cap, only to be told by a colleague that it gave "a working-class impression."

An aristocratic interpretation of casual style was offered by Alan Clark, son of the late Lord Clark whose TV series "Civilization" was shown around the world.

Mr. Clark, who owns estates in the English countryside and is MP for London's well-heeled Kensington and Chelsea constituency, chose a knobby tweed jacket with pants to match and commented: "This is what casual means where I come from."

Hague himself appeared to have difficulty interpreting his own dress code instructions.

Hague arrived wearing a brown houndstooth sport jacket, plus a bright red tie. When an aide pointed out that red is traditionally a Labour Party color, the Tory leader stepped back into the hotel and reemerged for a photo session minus the controversial neckwear.

There were also signs that some of the 145 Conservative MPs invited to Eastbourne had trouble adjusting to the concept of bonding.

The program called for a series of lectures and discussions on such topics as: "The feminization of society," "How to reconnect with the British people," and "The art of opposition."

Former Cabinet Ministers and fledgling MPs were then to break up into smaller groups, where, Hague told the meeting, "bonding would occur."

"The way we organize ourselves, the way we talk to each other, the way we behave has got to change," Hague declared. "And the change starts here."

Not everyone agreed.

Sir Teddy Taylor, a leading opponent of European monetary union and, as such, a thorn in the side of the last government, flatly rejected the idea of "bonding" with pro-European colleagues.

Wearing a woolen sweater and corduroy trousers, Sir Teddy said, "We can forget all this silly touchy-feely talk and public relations gimmickry. I'm here to talk about the single currency."

A few MPs failed to heed Hague's call to bond with their colleagues.

Former prime ministers John Major and Sir Edward Heath offered polite apologies, as did Michael Heseltine, Mr. Major's former deputy.

At the end of the seaside session, Hague proclaimed it a "resounding success."

Reporters were less enthusiastic in their assessment, however.

The Daily Telegraph, normally a strong supporter of the Conservative Party, joked at "the gaping new split in the party over style."

With a sly reference to Hague's neckwear backflip, its story was headlined: "Ties are loosened as Tories bond."

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