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Pin doctors: The art of 'lapel politics'

Forget wearing your heart on your sleeve – for today's politicos, it's all about the badge on your lapel
  • @susborne

We'll call it "lapel politics," when a simple chest adornment appears to symbolise so much about the feelings of public figures towards cancer, terrorism, war dead or – right now – running and jumping over things.

Eric Pickles was surprisingly quick out of the blocks in the race to back the troubled 2012 Olympics. The less-than-athletic Tory frontbencher was one of few MPs to wear an official Games pin at last week's Prime Minister's Questions.

Jeremy Hunt wasn't far behind, showing up the next day with his pin for a debate on Olympic security. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was caught napping but had discovered her pin by Monday, when the Prime Minister also gave a speech alongside his similarly be-badged deputy, Nick Clegg. Poor show the Mayor of London and Hugh Robertson, the Olympics minister, however: neither man wore a badge at a Torch Relay briefing on Monday. Pins are conspicuously absent, meanwhile, along the opposition benches.

When politicians seem increasingly intent on doing satirists' jobs for them, it wouldn't be inconceivable for the pin to become the new poppy. Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsreader, is the poster boy for poppy refuseniks (no MP would dare be seen without one before Remembrance Day), but when wearing has come to symbolise caring, not doing so can be politically problematic.

The obligation to wear stars-and-stripes pins after 9/11 was such that Barack Obama was called out several years later, in 2007, when he ditched his on the presidential campaign trail. "My attitude is that I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart," he said in his defence about a "phony issue", only to restore the flag to his chest five months later.

Mitt Romney, Obama's Republican rival in the current race to the White House, is a big pin man. He bragged at a fundraiser in May about commissioning "We Stand United" American flag pins for the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, which he was in charge of organising, just months after 9/11.

But the boast backfired as critics pointed out the pins, like those made for London, had been made in China (outsourcing jobs abroad is a big issue in the US campaign).

Pin politics recall the explosion of coloured charity ribbons in the Nineties, when Ian Hislop refused to wear one on an episode of Have I Got News For You shown on World Aids Day. Instead he wore a cardboard "L" to represent leukaemia, which had just claimed his friend.

A government spokesman yesterday denied MPs had received any "pin memo", while the Mayor's office said Boris usually wore his.

Whether or not politicians show their support on their chests, we can all be grateful 2012 designers were not inspired by Romney. As well as the 9/11 pins, he commissioned a collection featuring Olympic mascots saying: "We love you, Mitt". In another, a chiselled Romney was drawn as a Superman figure draped in stars and stripes.

Imagine it – Seb Coe hero pins. If only Mitt's badges, which deserved medals for vanity, could have punctured his ego as well as his lapel.