Tony Blair tells a good story about some of the strange things he was expected to do when he was the British prime minister. The bit you might expect was this: preparing for a general election, he was told by advisers he should “reconnect with the people,” get out of Downing Street and travel up and down the country and talk with “normal” people.
But because Mr Blair’s advisers were very smart, they also made him learn some things about “normal” people that you might not expect, and that Tony Blair may have forgotten after a few years of international summits, Cabinet meetings and the cocoon of the prime minister’s office.
According to Mr Blair’s account, the advisers sat the prime minister down and forced him to learn “the price of everyday things like a pint of milk, a pound of butter, a shoulder of lamb”. There was a big debate about white or brown bread – “nothing too wholemeal, nothing too unhealthy”, as if he was in the habit of walking along Downing Street to a corner shop (there isn’t one) and buying the groceries.
Mr Blair was rightly sceptical, but understood that his advisers had a point. The last thing a prime minister in an election campaign would want would be for someone to say he is so out of touch he doesn’t even know the price of a loaf of bread. Mr Blair recognised that leadership in the 20th and 21st century was about “temperament, character and attitude” but it was also about seeming authentic (even if you faked it a little).
In the American comedian’s joke, “authenticity is great – if you can fake it, you’ve got it made.” Mr Blair’s lesson is now being learnt by a new generation of British politicians, who seem to have gone out of their way to show how unlike the rest of us they really are. If they are authentic, then they are authentically extremely rich, privileged and authentically unlike most of the population.
The Conservative party chairman Nadhim Zahawi was fired by prime minister Rishi Sunak for breaches of the ministerial code in respect to his taxes. Mr Zahawi has had to make a payment to the tax people of around £5 million. Some years ago he even tried to charge parliamentary expenses for heating stables for his horses. With Mr Zahawi gone, the problem of seeming out of touch with ordinary people remains for Mr Sunak himself, since he is reported to be the richest British prime minister ever, at a time of a sharp cost of living crisis.
He and his wife Akshata Murty entered The Sunday Times UK Rich List in May 2022 at number 222 with a reported net worth of $837 million. That in itself perhaps should not matter. Good luck to him being so wealthy. But it confirms the suspicions among voters – reflected by Tony Blair being schooled in the price of milk – that in hard times the British political class is drawn from people who went to a few posh schools, never had to worry about paying the electricity bill and all know each other. That connects to the other political row affecting Mr Sunak and his judgment. The current chairman of the BBC Richard Sharp, as noted in last week’s column, helped facilitate an £800,000 loan for prime minister Boris Johnson, and then Mr Sharp was appointed BBC Chairman.
Mr Sharp is a distinguished businessman, who at Goldman Sachs was also the boss of a young man called Rishi Sunak. All those involved say there was no wrongdoing, which is good to know, although inquiries continue.
Even so, doing a favour for someone and then getting a top job from that person – even if on merit – sits very uneasily. We have also learnt that Mr Johnson has declared earnings of almost a million pounds in one month, including more than £500,000 as an advance for an upcoming book, around £200,000 for a speech to an Indian conglomerate and nearly £250,000 for a speech in Singapore, along with his (part time) job, as an MP on a salary of £84,000 plus expenses.
But what is yet another remarkable coincidence is that the inquiry into the Mr Johnson loan is to be led by William Shawcross, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, a person I have met a few times and believe has impeccable qualifications for the job. But his daughter Eleanor is head of the policy unit for Rishi Sunak in Downing Street. All these people – Mr Zahawi, Mr Sunak, Mr Sharp, Mr Johnson, Mr Shawcross and Ms Shawcross – are undoubtedly among the brightest people in Britain. But the fact that they are all in some way connected and charged with investigating or commenting on each other's conduct does make it look as if Britain is led by a small group of people who are very matey with each other and yet are supposed to keep a check on anything going wrong. Even if nobody did anything wrong, ever, that is an odd state of affairs, although it is not odd for Britain. It is normal. And that itself is the problem.