Writer and broadcaster

Beware the hair that rises. Election 2001. Published in The New Statesman

A few years ago, as he accompanied a group of journalists to a British military camp in Bosnia, Michael Portillo showed that he had his priorities right. He asked a woman in the group if he could borrow her curling tongs to keep his hair in the style to which we have become accustomed: at the stiff-peak meringue stage. (Actually, egg whites are terrific for keeping your hair in place, if a little sticky.)

Hair is fabulously important in politics, and never more so than in the run-up to an election. Portillo knows this. He started his hair campaign early. Back in the autumn of 1999, he lured William Hague to a Yorkshire moor for a television interview. Hague looked hopelessly windswept as his 73 strands of hair got blown about; Portillo looked impeccably “glossy”. The subliminal message that Portillo wanted to send out was clear: “I’m in control; he isn’t.”

Hague learnt his lesson, and now looks somewhat better with his number-one crop (Robin Cook, take heed). He turned the tables earlier this month when he and his shadow chancellor visited an Essex farm. While Hague looked quite polished, Portillo looked grumpy, as well he might: by the end of the visit, his hair resembled a teddy boy’s collapsed quiff. Mousse can hold up only so much.

Portillo is keen to hang on to power and, like Samson (he wishes!), he thinks his potency is in his hair. Thus it is very important to him to keep it bouffed and teasingly erect at all times. He would have fared well in the 18th and 19th centuries, when well-dressed, luxuriant hair was regarded as a barometer of social standing and success – for women.

In this one thing, Portillo is correct. Since Churchill, no bald man has ever been elected prime minister (and he was running against another bald man). Whether Tony Blair thought of this before the last election is not known, but he certainly modified his bouffy hairstyle to something flatter, to help hide his impending baldness. But beware, Tony: over the past year, Gordon Brown’s hair has been getting more Mrs Slocombe-like, even as poor Tone’s buffers down. Some suspect that this denotes a shift in power.

Although never a fan of his politics, I always suspected there was more to John Major than he let on. Two things convinced me of this: one, his thin top lip (supposed to be a sign of sexual appetite); two, he spent his whole time in office with what amounted to a flick. And nobody noticed. Before the 1997 election, members of his party were suspected of ringing up his barber, Ian Mat-thews of Trumper in Mayfair, London, begging him to do something “more voter-friendly” with Major’s hair. At first sight, it is/was possibly the most boring style on earth, but looking closer, you could see that he had an extreme right-hand parting. By extreme, I mean very much on the side of the head. That’s how the Beatles used to wear theirs in their heyday. Add to this the subversive little flick . . . but it was all too subtle.

Ann Widdecombe, Lord bless her, has long been defined by her hair, a virgo-intacta-style barnet, previously with not a hint of a parting of the follicles. Interesting, then, that she has of late started to sport a parting (albeit on the left), and has also softened her hair colour from impenetrable black to a softer, more come-hither chestnut brown.

Partings are interesting. Is it a coincidence that politicians tend to base them according to their political leanings? If so, I do wonder at Margaret Beckett. Her parting is all over the place – right, centre and, most recently, the comb has been carving a path firmly on the left-hand side.

On the whole, women MPs seem to wear their hair in three styles. The first two: hair as armour, all backcombed and sprayed into place (viz, Beckett, Margaret Thatcher, Baroness Jay), and the Joan of Arc (Widdecombe, Mo Mowlam). Both are horrendously out of date and unmodish, but at least, in their own way, they are more confident than the wishy-washy, wispy, daren’t-offend- anyone styles of Harriet Harman, Theresa May and Yvette Cooper. (Although Harman deserves a little pat on the back here – she could so easily have gone Princess Diana blonde, but didn’t.) They all seem very keen to show their ears. Cooper’s are particularly pink, a sign that you want to be thought of as a good listener.

So what a surprise to discover that John Prescott’s hair (parting: left) often flaps around his ears in a “I’m listening, no I’m not” fashion. But then, he looks like the sort of man who always tries to squeeze an extra week or two from his haircut.

So, judging by their hair, who will win this election? Well, between Blair and Hague, Hague doesn’t stand a chance – despite the recent effort. But watch Brown and Portillo. Both men’s hair is looking a little too keen, too immaculate, too . . . aspiring. Both should beware. According to Charles Darwin, hairstyles can be indicative of mental disorders. “Chronic maniacs”, he wrote, “have hair that rises up from the forehead, like the mane of a Shetland pony.”