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Mind your language

Just who – or what – are the men in suits?

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

After he invented the term young fogey (in The Spectator in 1984), the much lamented journalist Alan Watkins coined the term men in suits. Of course other people before him had used the phrases young fogey and men in suits as nonce formations. Watkins identified both as what has since been denominated ‘a thing’.

By his own account, even before Margaret Thatcher had been dislodged by them in 1990, the men in suits (identified as a group by the definite article) had been transformed into the men in grey suits. This, he observed, was inaccurate: ‘The typical Conservative grandee tends to wear a dark blue or black suit, with chalk- or pin-stripes, what may be called a White’s Club suit.’


The men in suits who sought to remove Theresa May from her rock did not wear a White’s Club suit. As a woman, I don’t know from experience who are members of White’s, but I had a look in Who’s Who — Alan Watkins used to say that five minutes with Who’s Who are seldom wasted. Among older Tories who list their membership of White’s are Lord Heseltine (who is also a member of Brooks’s, the Carlton, Pratt’s and the Beefsteak, which must lower the risk of sitting next to him at lunch); Michael Ancram (as he used to call himself, now the Marquess of Lothian); Brooks Newmark (who was an MP too briefly to be a grandee); and Sir Nicholas Soames. I can’t think anyone would take much notice of what they have to say, though perhaps they should.

Among White’s men I can only see Sir Malcolm Rifkind as anything like a grandee, being often wheeled out on security matters. The grandees in the magic circle that once decided on the next prime minister have evaporated. The Conservative party is tied hand and foot by its rules. The men in suits are now backbenchers and their 1922 Committee. They do wear suits, but they are much more like the kind that Michael Heath characterised in his Spectator cartoon strip ‘The Suits’ — anonymous men who suffocate creativity with relentless dullness and corporate targets. They destroyed Punch and they have made the House of Commons what it is today.


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