Hit-and-miss history of the makeover merchants

THEY WERE subtle touches: blink and you would miss them. A hint of varnish on the fingernails, a small brooch pinned to the jacket, a shorter and discernably less-severe haircut.

Small changes, but there was no doubting their import. Ann Widdecombe, the scourge and despair of the image-makers, the woman with a disarming disregard for her own reflection, had finally subjected herself to a makeover.

The fundamentals have not been altered. The views of Miss Widdecombe, the Tory home affairs spokeswoman who is at the helm of the party while William Hague is on holiday, are as uncompromising as ever and her voice could still stop a ship running aground on a stormy night. But the politician who has come to be recognised as one of the Conservative Party's main assets has a new softness to her.

The discreet tweaks to her appearance have been accompanied by a series of sympathetic newspaper articles, one of which disclosed that she had been secretly helping homeless people near the House of Commons. "It's a private and personal thing - I don't really want to talk about it," she declared, a trifle disingenuously.

Her makeover, however minor, has worked. But those tempted to follow suit should think twice. History is littered with politicians whose attempts to revamp themselves fell flat.

Some, probably wisely, never tried. Michael Foot, the former Labour leader, springs to mind. The image of him turning up at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in a donkey-jacket proved indelible.

Neil Kinnock, his successor, did try, engaging the image consultant Barbara Follett, now a Labour MP, to give him and his shadow cabinet a make-over for the 1992 general election.

On Mrs Follett's advice Mr Kinnock had his hair cropped and adopted double- breasted suits. Notoriously long-winded, he attempted a punchier style of delivery for his television appearances. It never rang true, and did not translate into electoral success.

Tony Blair had more natural gifts in the image department, although he could not resist consulting the style gurus, who advised him to get a new haircut and wear darker suits.

His predecessor, John Major, switched to charcoal during a short-lived attempt to remodel himself, adopting double-breasted suits and (relatively) snazzy ties in an attempt to cast off his bank-manager image.

When she saw his new look, the image consultant Mary Spillane nearly swooned. "When I saw him, my pulse raced," she said at the time. "He was just short of edible." Sadly, few people agreed.

The most successful makeover of recent history has been that of Baroness Thatcher. At the behest of Sir Gordon Reece, her image consultant, she replaced her fussy look - all bows and ruffled collars - with smart suits. She had her teeth capped, got a glamorous blonde hairdo and lowered her naturally shrill tones by an octave.

The pitch of her voice is now said to be the perfect balance between male and female, and her facial exercises so pronounced that videotapes of her speeches are used to teach lip-reading to the deaf.

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