The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Aertex shirts and slacks can fuel a Tory comeback

Disturbing news, indeed. I refer, of course, to last week's front- page shock report that the powers-that-be in the Conservative hierarchy are urging us all to "dress down" before going on the dread gogglebox.

Mr Alan Duncan, it appears, has already chosen to present himself on BBC's Question Time wearing little but an open-necked shirt and a blazer. We are assured by Central Office that the public-at-large responds well to politicians who follow his lead and dress as nancy-boy cocktail waiters from the local Pontin's. Taking a leaf from the Duncan book, poor old William Hague is now threatening to appear on Channel 4 News wearing nothing but his polka-dot bathing trunks and a lightweight sun-shirt, knotted in a bow around the navel. Meanwhile, the Euro-fanatics, stung by this two-pronged attack, are preparing to give as good as they get: Michael Heseltine is arguing the case for the euro on Panorama clad in an Aertex shirt, shorts and sandals, whilst my old friend and quaffing partner Kenneth Clarke has thrown off his trademark Hush Puppies and crumpled suit for something a little warmer, a little cosier: when he appears on Newsnight on Tuesday week arguing for closer co-operation with Brussels, he will be in his fluffy pink household slippers, plus matching scarlet dressing-gown with voter-friendly see-through sleeves.

But I wonder whether this more relaxed approach is all that it is cracked up to be. It has been tried before and found wanting. Back in the early 1960s, when good old Harold Macmillan was feeling the likes of the hip young Harold Wilson breathing down his back, he employed my old chum Godfrey Smith to "brighten up" his image. I don't suppose many of us who were there will ever forget the famous Tory party conference when to a fanfare from Lonnie Donnegan, on came Harold Macmillan, his famous moustache now shaven into a more trendy "Zapata" look, his old three-piece tweed suit thrown to one side in favour of a more dashing combination of drainpipe trousers, winkle-picker shoes and all-black "polo" neck.

Sitting behind him on the platform, his deadly rival Quintin Hogg could be seen applauding vociferously, yet the eagle-eyed among us could detect a look of unabashed envy playing over his face. The very next day, Quintin took to the platform for the law-and-order debate with his scant hair freshly dyed and moulded into an Elvis-style quiff, his body clad in an all-too revealing Lurex jump-suit. Small wonder that even the normally taciturn Alec Douglas-Home should have felt impelled to don an Afro wig and plimsolls for his contribution to the Foreign Affairs policy discussion.

But this display of modernity cut little ice with our discerning old friend, Joe Public Esq. In the '64 election, we Tories were given the proverbial boot, and the more soberly dressed socialists remained in power for seven years. It taught me a major lesson in the art of politics, a lesson that today's up-and-coming young Conservatives might do well to heed: the ordinary decent British punter likes to look up to his political masters. He prefers his MP or his Prime Minister to wear a beautifully cut suit, a strong, manly tie (no flowers in the design, if you please!), matching socks, preferably dark, and a decent, tassel-free pair of sensible walking-shoes. He most certainly does NOT expect him to wear a grubby T-shirt, a nipple-ring, and a silk-effect "posing pouch" (dread garment!).

Of course, they're all at it now, as my Ould Granny Arnold would say. I have never been a Heath man, save for those few years when he was in power, but I would always have relied upon him to observe the niceties of sartorial etiquette. Yet only last week I bumped into Sir Edward emerging from Albany in a lime-green silk blouson of some sort, extravagantly flared jeans and a feng shui chime pendant around his neck. I greeted him coldly, and inquired what on earth he was wearing. "The more casual look is all the rage in the party, Wallace," he explained, "and as the Father of the House, one feels one should set an example." Where will it end? One hears dreadful rumours that even poor old Margaret T has succumbed. Lecturing at the University of Wisconsin last week, she turned up in gingham slacks and a Bart Simpson T-shirt, having swapped her traditional handbag for what I believe is known as a "bum-bag" (dread item!).

This would never have happened were Enoch still alive. As Mr Simon Heffer records in his magisterial new biography of the man, it was discovered only after his death that Enoch wore a collar and tie not only on his shirt but upon his underpants as well. It is not everything that has changed for the better, I fear.