Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/AP/PA

Boris’s Cosplay Cabinet: The Fancy Dress Party At The Heart Of Government

You can expect to see some serious power dressing at the Conservative Party conference

“It’s all about the battle of the brands as cabinet members embrace merched-up items of clothing,” one Tory staffer tells HuffPost UK.

And they are not the only ones who have noticed this Conservative government has a penchant for personalised outfits.

During David Cameron’s heyday, ministers asserted themselves with the legs-too-far-apart “power stance”, tucked-in ties, rolled-up sleeves and hi-vis vests.

But Boris Johnson’s squad have their own distinct style that has been dubbed “cosplay” by some in Westminster.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a visit to Grimsby Fish Market.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a visit to Grimsby Fish Market.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

A quick glance through their PR shots you will find top politicians dressed in camouflage, branded jumpers, hardhats, aprons, lab coats, police jackets, goggles and fishmonger hats.

That’s not to mention the Union Jack flags that adorn their offices, face masks and Zoom backgrounds.

The prime minister is no stranger to dressing up, as Mayor of London he donned boxing gloves, turbans, tennis kits and a glittery pink stetson.

“Image has always been important to Boris. He’s basically known around the world for his novelty photo shoots – everyone remembers that zip wire photo,” says one contact who knew Johnson when he was Mayor of London

Although a separate City Hall source added: “I only recall he just always looked very scruffy.”

The former London Mayor Boris Johnson wears a pink stetson hat at the Gay Pride parade in 2008.
The former London Mayor Boris Johnson wears a pink stetson hat at the Gay Pride parade in 2008.
Peter Macdiarmid via Getty Images

Johnson has kept his messy hair but he’s sharpened his image since becoming prime minister, ditching party pieces for branded bomber jackets.

Some say he had help from his smartly dressed wife Carrie who was praised for channeling her passion for the environment into her fashion by renting everything from her G7 outfits to her wedding dress.

Johnson in his personalised "Prime Minister" Nissan jacket.
Johnson in his personalised "Prime Minister" Nissan jacket.
Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

One of Johnson’s statement pieces is his black, high-collar foul weather jacket emblazoned with the words “PRIME MINISTER” that he wore on a visit to a Scottish naval base.

More recently he was photographed driving a car in a grey personalised Nissan jacket on a visit to their Sunderland plant.

Some experts wonder if the branded clothing is an American import, with US Presidents long having modelled bespoke pieces.

One of the most famous items was JFK’s Air Force One bomber jacket that sold for more than £360,000 at auction in 2013.

Daniel Meader holds JFK's Air Force One bomber jacket.
Daniel Meader holds JFK's Air Force One bomber jacket.
Paul Marotta via Getty Images

Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, professor of marketing and sustainable business at the British School of Fashion, said: “I think it’s all about authority and this perception of getting the job done and appearing in control and serious.

“It is a visual shorthand to stamp your identity on something.”

But brand Boris has competition.

As publicity-hungry cabinet ministers jostle for influence, one government source notes: “There’s two types of minister – the ones who think they’ll be prime minister one day and ones who know they’ve got no chance.

“Put it this way, you can easily see which one is which.”

Earlier this year Priti Patel was photographed attending a crack-down on people smugglers dressed in a “HOME SECRETARY” jacket.

The police jacket proved controversial on social media with plenty criticising Patel for using a National Crime Agency raid as a photo opportunity.

Meanwhile, chancellor Rishi Sunak donned army fatigues to scramble across an obstacle course with “SUNAK” plastered across his chest on a visit to Catterick Garrison.

Sunak is increasingly known for his own branding after his team pumped out personalised graphics during the pandemic complete with his squiggly signature.

These “merched up ministers” have not impressed some backbench Tory MPs, with one accusing them of “spaffing cash” to remind themselves of who they are.

The Tory MP told HuffPost UK: “Maybe they’ve forgotten who they are – why they are there.”

However, a separate Tory insider sees the merch as a way of indicating “power and responsibility”, adding: “Rishi seems to do it in a more informal and relaxed way – the football shirt that he wears effortlessly or the name badge at Wagamama. He seems to be comfortable with it.”

Peter Cardwell, a former special adviser to four Conservative cabinet ministers, knows just how important image is to the UK’s most senior MPs.

The author of The Secret Life of Special Advisers said: “Items such as personalised jackets are always noticed, but the key point is to keep it classy and in keeping with the politician, rather than trying to be something you’re not - like William Hague at the Notting Hill carnival with his notorious ‘Hague’ baseball cap.

“Most MPs have a healthy ego and do think about image a lot, even though the average voter probably couldn’t pick most of them out of a police line-up.

“Many MPs spend a fortune on clothes, make-up and expensive haircuts – and that’s just the men.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel during during a walkabout at the Port of Dover
Home Secretary Priti Patel during during a walkabout at the Port of Dover
Kirsty O'Connor - PA Images via Getty Images

Now, freedom of information (FOI) requests submitted by HuffPost UK reveal some of the details behind those eye-catching garbs.

Patel’s black coat is a “standard issue Metropolitan Police waterproof jacket” provided for the “sole purpose” of operational visits.

The Home Office FOI team insisted it was not a “personalised item” and the bespoke label is a velcro badge that is “separate” from the coat.

Michael Gove during a visit to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Teaching Campus, Glasgow
Michael Gove during a visit to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Teaching Campus, Glasgow
Jane Barlow - PA Images via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Johnson’s personalised waterproof coat was “presented” to him on a visit to HMNB Clyde in July 2019.

Others who have got in on the merchandise include Grant Shapps who was photographed wearing a Virgin-sponsored bomber jacket emblazoned with “TRANSPORT SECRETARY” – alongside the prime minister who wore a matching jacket.

The pair donned the coats on a visit to the company’s rocket LauncherOne at the Spaceport in Newquay.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak wearing a hard hat and hi-vis on a construction site
Chancellor Rishi Sunak wearing a hard hat and hi-vis on a construction site
LEE SMITH via Getty Images

But whether they are burnishing their Build Back Better credentials or trying to depict themselves as defenders of the so-called “red wall”, there is one distinct style that this cabinet just cannot get enough of.

The little black dress for cabinet ministers since the Cameron-era is still the hi-vis vest against an industrial backdrop.

Those partial to the fluorescent get-up include Johnson, Sunak, Patel, Shapps, COP26 president Alok Sharma, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and attorney general Suella Braverman.

Meanwhile, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and health secretary Sajid Javid have both posed up in laboratories wearing coats and goggles.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss boards RAF Voyager at Stansted Airport
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss boards RAF Voyager at Stansted Airport
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

However, the biggest power dresser in Westminster right now has to be new foreign secretary Liz Truss.

She is frequently pictured in brightly coloured suits, bold dresses and statement trousers – often against a backdrop of Union Jacks.

Professor Radclyffe-Thomas added: “In the current cabinet, someone who really stands out is Liz Truss.

“She’s got a specific wardrobe of colour blocks of red and blue and often the blue dress with the red handbag and the red shoes.

“She is a walking embodiment of that union flag. I think that’s very intentional and noticeable. She’s often in front of the union flag as well.”

It is not just senior Tory politicians who are image-conscious. Ex-Labour adviser Frances Leach said when she organised visits to building sites or factories, she would request hard hats and hi-vis for photo ops.

“There is also an element of wanting to make your politician look as if they are simply ‘one of us’, cosplaying in the costume of ordinary people to remind their constituents that they care about their common man,” she says.

“It’s easier if you’re a brickie to relate to an image of Boris Johnson chatting to some factory workers in a hi-vis than it is with him in a suit during PMQs.”

Professor Radclyffe-Thomas pointed out that a lot of cabinet ministers are “well off” and added: “I think people are trying to appear relatable and ‘one of us’ when actually many of them their pockets are far deeper than their average voters.”

Johnson with Tory MP Nadine Dorries - who was recently made culture secretary
Johnson with Tory MP Nadine Dorries - who was recently made culture secretary
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Dr Rebecca Arnold, fashion historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, warned there was a “danger” for politicians dressing up in industry work clothes if in the future their policies affect those workers.

She added: “It’s an immediate form of identification which can go either way.

“You’ve got different audiences – the people they are actually with for the visit who might all think it’s wonderful, but then some other headline might happen that day that changes its meaning when it becomes something in a newspaper or online.

“Beyond whether you’ll get in trouble politically for it, it’s something that can come back to haunt you.”

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at Vauxhall's plant in Ellesmere Port
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at Vauxhall's plant in Ellesmere Port
Peter Byrne - PA Images via Getty Images

Certainly, Patel came under a lot of criticism for her personalised police jacket and was branded a hypocrite for tweeting a photo of herself in an England shirt after saying fans had a right to boo football players for taking the knee.

But there was a clear message from everyone HuffPost spoke to: image is more important to politicians than ever before.

“Fashion is key to our identity. It’s a short-cut to expressing or giving an outward image of ourselves,” Professor Radclyffe-Thomas adds.

Home Secretary Priti Patel arrives for the "No Time To Die" World Premiere
Home Secretary Priti Patel arrives for the "No Time To Die" World Premiere
Ming Yeung via Getty Images

“In politics it’s become increasingly important with the rise of television and then with the rise of rolling news and social media.

“People are on screens constantly. Their image can be grabbed in the street and they’re not in control of that image any more.”

With Conservative Party conference kicking off on Sunday, expect some serious power-dressing on that Manchester stage.