March 25, 2011 10:03 pm

A deliberate non-statement

While George Osborne’s Budget-day attire may seem like quite a ‘duh!’ sort of thing, I think it was more carefully considered than that

So how did the “all-action” Budget announcement go? Opinion might seem divided over an increase in the bank levy, say, but in one area at least, chancellor George Osborne made a good choice: presentation. It’s never easy when you have to stand up in front of a nation and tell it that things are not, actually, changing much, and in spite of all the great investment you have planned, life is still going to be pretty tight and your growth forecast smaller then anticipated. It’s never easy to figure out how to dress to deliver pain. But overall, in his barely-blue shirt, dark suit and optimistically royal-purple neckwear, he did all right.

Certainly, the tie was better than last year’s choice of green (green being a colour that, to anyone used to assessing their currency against the dollar, is at least subconsciously associated with money). Purple is often worn by prime minister David Cameron, and has recently become a less in-your-face power colour of parliamentary choice. Likewise, the decision to stick with his three-button blue suit and slightly evolved shade of shirt – almost the same suit and shirt he wore last year – demonstrated admirable consistency and economy; attributes theoretically desirable in a chancellor, and certainly reflected in his Budget. Both were, as a Tory spokesperson said of the fiscal plan, “steady as she goes”. Plus, going three-buttons instead of two gave the suit a hint of “young and modern”; a selling point of the coalition government, but not in a threatening way.

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Vanessa Friedman

It didn’t exactly scream “action”, but sometimes sartorial action can be a scary thing. Instead, Osborne’s clothes made the statement of no statement; they were just kind of ... quiet. Kind of like his whole approach to the public side of his job. Whatever he says behind the closed doors of Number 11, whatever he wears, it’s not for show.

So while Osborne’s Budget-day attire may seem like quite a “duh!” sort of thing – that he woke up, put on his usual suit, picked a nice tie, grabbed the red Budget box and strode out to meet his fate – I think it was more carefully considered than that.

After all, there are so many ways in which it could have gone wrong; so many bloggers who could take offence at a pocket square (toff) or a banker’s striped shirt, especially given Osborne’s seemingly innate public-schoolboy style. Why is self-evident: we don’t want to be associated with those City types – we want to tax them!

Except ... except. We’re talking the electorate here. Not everyone hates the bankers; in fact, many taxpayers are bankers. Plus, Savile Row and the companies represented therein are part of the UK economy, and it’s always a good idea for a chancellor to promote local business.

So the challenge is to remain studiously neutral in dress, to be garbed so almost everyone can relate to, or at least not take offence at, what they see.

. . .

After all, if he wore, say, a crumpled, ill-fitting suit that telegraphed: up all night running the numbers! Or: worn again because I didn’t want to indulge in any more! Or other such “hey-I’m-just-like-you-workers” messages, the odds are another blogger somewhere would take issue with that. You can’t dress to please all the people all the time, but you can dress to please most of the people some of the time. (Apologies to Abraham Lincoln for the way I’ve twisted his words – but, well, he dressed like an undertaker, all of the time.) Especially if you are a man, and your choices are more limited.

I suspect that clothing choices are more fraught for Christine Lagarde, Nicolas Sarkozy’s minister of economic affairs, finance and industry, whose decision to wear knee-high boots or go to the Chanel women’s wear show can provoke endless musings by the pundits, even given the reality that fashion is a more acceptable part of the conversation in France than Britain.

Osborne’s predecessor as chancellor, Alistair Darling, attempted to up the ante by mixing grey suits in with the usual blue, and, for his last Budget, by wearing a grey-and-blue-striped tie. Before him, Gordon Brown, approached the problem by wearing pretty much the same thing every day of the week – the famous blue suit, white shirt, red tie – adding in pink and purple neckwear when it was determined he needed to be more touchy-feely, or look like more of a Blair ally (Blair having developed a fondness for purple ties during his last years in office that Cameron appears to have continued; Labour party outreach and all that).

Compared with those two, Osborne seems to be putting more energy into appearance, and the possible interpretations thereof. Or maybe you could even say ... action.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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