Andy Burnham doesn't know the price of petrol, but that's not why he shouldn't be Labour leader

Is he really as true to his roots as he says he is?

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There are a few reasons why those who have the future of the Labour Party at heart may not wish to endorse Andy Burnham as its next leader, but the fact he doesn’t know the price of a litre of unleaded shouldn’t be one of them. I’m not sure I would know the answer, either, but then again I am not standing for office on  “a man of the people” ticket.

“I have never forgotten who I am or where I come from,” Mr Burnham told a meeting of union men in Dublin yesterday, as he attempted to press his case for the Labour leadership. He was then asked the ejector question. I feel sorry for politicians who are put on the spot like this. They’ve had to memorise the cost of a loaf of bread, and a bottle of milk, and a pint of beer and then someone goes and asks them how much petrol costs. Mr Burnham got it wrong by a factor of a third. (The average cost, by the way, is £1.16, and Mr Burnham said £1.60.)

These are dark days indeed for faithful supporters of the Labour Party. This once great political force, which bred giants and inspired generations, has been brought to its knees by the election, and it’s hard to see anything but a long period out of government for Labour. The lack of an effective opposition, I hardly need say, is not good for the democratic health of the country.

The line-up of Labour’s finest, who are eager to sup from the most poisoned of chalices, doesn’t inspire total confidence – there is actually a case for invoking the Groucho Rule, saying that anyone who wants the leadership should, de facto, be disqualified from standing – and Mr Burnham is the front-runner.

So what if he doesn’t know the price of petrol? There’s a bigger reason to resist his claims, and it’s not because he refused to answer directly whether he would scrap the £23,000 cap the Tories have imposed on benefits for a single family. This prompted a chorus of catcalls from the annual congress of the GMB yesterday.

No, it’s not that. Here he is, again from yesterday: “I am somebody who is true to my roots, my values, the people who put me where I am today. If you choose me, that won’t change.” He said that he would take Labour “out of the Westminster bubble” and back to the people.

And here he is again, when he was Health Secretary, responding to a letter from Prince Charles (released as part of the Black Spider files) urging the use of complementary medicine in the NHS. He was suitably respectful to the Prince, suggesting he would be “delighted” to meet and discuss the issue, and then he signed the letter,  in his own hand: “I have the honour to remain, Sir, Your Royal Highness’s most loyal and obedient servant”.

This may be Debrett’s way of addressing the Prince of Wales, but other ministers contented themselves with “Yours Sincerely”. I’m all in favour of correct form, but I don’t think enough has been made of this ill-judged sign-off. No self-respecting member of the Labour Party should consider himself a servant of the Royal family. And that’s a much more grievous offence than not knowing the price of petrol.