Backlash over Brexit battle of the legs headline

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The Daily Mail's coverage of talks between British Prime Minister Theresa May (right) and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sparked a swift backlash

Britain's Daily Mail newspaper faced a backlash Tuesday for comparing the legs on show when British Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon held talks.

While the two leaders clashed over Brexit, which May is set to trigger Wednesday, and Sturgeon's push for another Scottish independence referendum, the Mail spun it as a battle of the legs and focused on what could be read into their outfits and body language.

"Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!", the tabloid's front page said, alongside a picture of the two leaders meeting in a Glasgow hotel on Monday.

"It wasn't quite stilettos at dawn, but there was a distinctly frosty atmosphere," it read underneath.

Inside, the paper's style editor compared their "boxy navy blazers, skirts that stopped just above the knee, shiny nude tights and pointy shoes -- a look replicated by career women of a certain age worldwide".

And in what the tabloid called a "light-hearted verdict on the big showdown", columnist Sarah Vine asserted: "What stands out here are the legs -- and the vast expanse on show.

"Both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal.

"May's famously long extremities are demurely arranged," she said, while "Sturgeon's shorter but undeniably more shapely shanks are altogether more flirty."

Sturgeon's pose was "a direct attempt at seduction... 'Come, succumb to my revolutionary allure,' she seems to be saying. 'You know you want to'."

- 'Have a bit of fun' -

The coverage sparked a swift backlash against Britain's second-most popular newspaper, which sells 1.5 million copies daily.

Former women and equalities minister Nicky Morgan called it "appalling sexism" that Britain's most senior female politicians were being judged for their legs.

The conservative Mail is the bete noire of the left, for whom Daily Mail bashing is an instinctive visceral reflex.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn led the charge, saying: "It's 2017. This sexism must be consigned to history. Shame on the Daily Mail."

Amelia Womack, the Green Party's deputy leader, has formally complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, claiming the headline discriminated on the grounds of gender.

But May said she did not mind if people wanted to have "a bit of fun" around the way she dressed.

"You will notice that I am wearing trousers today!" she told the Express and Star regional newspaper.

The Conservative leader said there had always been close attention on what she wore, particularly her shoes -- which are typically leopard-print kitten heels.

"Most people concentrate on what we do as politicians," she said.

"But if people want to have a bit of fun about how we dress, then so be it."

- 'Back to the 70s' -

A spokesman for Sturgeon said the focus on legs was "slightly surprising".

"Brexit may risk taking Britain back to the early 1970s but there is no need for coverage of events to lead the way," he said.

A spokesman for the Daily Mail urged critics to "get a life".

He said the Mail had backed May to become prime minister and regularly commented on the appearance of male politicians.

"Is there a rule that says political coverage must be dull, or has a po-faced BBC and left-wing commentariat -- so obsessed by the Daily Mail -- lost all sense of humour and proportion?" he asked.

In a BBC radio discussion, Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women's Equality Party, said it was "laughable and ridiculous" to treat two government leaders as "unlikely sex symbols" rather than professionals.

"It's precisely meant to diminish their power."

Newspaper columnist Angela Epstein countered that May and Sturgeon "both understand that clothes are a tool by which we can communicate who we are".

She added: "They've both got fantastic legs."