Why are politicians so cringe when they try to be normal? - GulfToday

Why are politicians so cringe when they try to be normal?

Sean O'Grady


Associate Editor of the Independent.

Rishi Sunak, host Julie Etchingham and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pose together as ITV hosts the first head-to-head debate of the General Election, in Manchester, Britain.   Reuters

Rishi Sunak, host Julie Etchingham and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pose together as ITV hosts the first head-to-head debate of the General Election, in Manchester, Britain. Reuters

The final question bowled by Julie Etchingham in the ITV leaders’ debate might have had the potential to be a bit of a googly, if you’ll pardon the mixed sports metaphors. Etchingham, lightening the mood a little, said that a chap named “Gareth” was on his way to Germany for another great contest — the Euros — and wanted to know the best leadership approach: play it safe, or take some risks and go for the win?

Both men replied in solid Match of the Day pundit style. Starmer said you need a game plan and a good squad (he means the shadow cabinet); Sunak, even less originally, went for “clear plan and bold action”. In truth, by that point both these political counterparts to Gareth Southgate had pretty much shown how they were playing this particular game.

It was Sunak who’d taken the risks, heckling and throwing around some dodgy claims about taxes and Labour’s policies; and Starmer, who’d been playing it safe, was found to be a bit caught out by the prime minister’s counter-attacks. Time and again Sunak did well on the “set piece” tax issue, the equivalent of a corner. Starmer’s defence only got its act together towards the end of the march, kicking the ball out of touch as “garbage”. Subsequent VAR-style intervention by the permanent secretary to the Treasury showed that the goal Sunak scored on tax was, shall we say, way offside.

But these homely, quick-fire, domestic sort of things do often catch politicians out. As our richest-ever prime minister (and son-in-law of a billionaire), Sunak probably shouldn’t try to pass himself off as an ordinary bloke, as it has always done him more harm than good. There’s a memorable clip of him as a teenager where he admits he didn’t have any working class friends.

We may also recall another clip where he couldn’t use contactless payment as he tried to buy a can of coke in a shop; that time when he had to borrow a Kia Rio for a photo-call because the family Range Rover was, well, a bit too posh. Another example that comes to mind is the time he asked a homeless man if he was “in business”. And, only last week. Sunak badly embarrassed himself by asking a group of workers in North Wales if they were looking forward to the Euros, only to be reminded that sadly Wales — unlike England and Scotland — hadn’t qualified.

The more serious point here is that voters do tend to like politicians who are, in the pollsters’ formulation, “in touch with ordinary people” (with the exception of Sunak’s adidas Samba trainers, for which he was widely ridiculed). According to YouGov in their instant poll, among those precious 2019 Conservative voters, Sunak was clearly in the lead against Starmer on issues such as the NHS, cost of living, education, tax and “being prime ministerial”, but Starmer was actually ahead on “in touch”. Sunak and his team obviously want to correct that deficit, but, starting with a man whose family is worth about £600m is a tricky proposition. It certainly allowed to Starmer to say that Sunak is “living in a different world”.

As a Saints (Southampton FC) fan, Sunak should have known better about Wales and the Euros, and might have offered a more convincing answer about Southgate’s challenges. But at least Sunak has always remembered which team he actually reports. During an infamous “brain haze” some years ago, David Cameron said his team was West Ham, which he’d muddled up with what was actually (or nominally) his actual team, Aston Villa. This may have arisen because the clubs share the same claret and blue strip.

Sunak was brought up in Southampton, as we know; but Cameron’s sole link to Birmingham’s other team is that his uncle was a director, so far away from the usual fan connection. It was not the first blunder of its kind from our rather elite former premier. Cameron, understandably irritated by being asked some inane query about the price of a loaf of bread, explained that he had no idea because he had an electronic bread maker and a big bag of organic flour. His Panasonic machine costs about £180 these days, and his answer didn’t add to his plebeian credentials.

His colleague, the then chancellor, George Osborne — faced with spiralling fuel prices at the time — floundered when asked about the cost of filling up the family car. By contrast to some of his Tory colleagues, Boris Johnson, who also came from a highly privileged background, joked that no, he didn’t know (or, obviously, care) about milk, but he certainly did know how much champagne cost. How Johnson, spouting Latin and flaunting his taste for freebies and the high life, ever managed to make himself out to be a tribune of the people remains one of great mysteries of politics. Then, of course, there was William Hague’s ill-fated claim that he sank 14 pints a day in his youth; a disastrous boast back in 2000 during an interview with Nicholas Coleridge for GQ.

The “price of milk” gotcha originated in the US where the preppy Brahmin President George HW Bush was caught out with it, and it’s caught politicians everywhere off Garuda ever since. It’s unfair, because by the time most of them get to power (and certainly after they’ve entered the cocoon of high office) they are unlikely to do much shopping — or even be allowed to drive themselves around.

The only politician who managed to make great capital out of their detailed knowledge about household management was Margaret Thatcher. Becoming Tory leader in 1975, a year when inflation peaked at more than 27 per cent, Mrs Thatcher hit the headlines when she showed off her extremely well-stocked larder in her Chelsea townhouse, and advised people to follow her example, buy in bulk and beat rising prices. (She was briefly nicknamed “squirrel Thatcher”). Photographed with shrinking bags of shopping to illustrate the impact of the cost of living crisis of her time, she made much of the virtues of “balancing budget”, in the household and the national sense.

Great statesmen and women don’t need to know the price of milk to do the job properly, after all. But to get – and stay – in elected office, it does no harm to pop to Asda, once in a while.


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