Most politicians these days are poised for the pint of milk question. This is when a broadcast interviewer, in an attempt to embarrass them, asks (usually with an air of righteous indignation) if they even know how much a pint of milk costs.
Sometimes bread is substituted for milk. But the point is the same: the right honourable member for wherever doesn’t have a clue how ordinary constituents scrape by.
These days, the minister in the hot seat has generally done their research. But the thinking behind the milk/bread conundrum is in fact more relevant now than ever. How much do members of the government understand the financial stress on the average earner, let alone someone on, say, disability benefits?
Recent evidence suggests they don’t really get it. Environment secretary George Eustice was mocked for advising hard-up householders to save money by buying supermarket own-brand products, when many have worked that out for themselves.
When I asked work and pensions minister Chloe Smith on Channel 4 News earlier this week about pensioners and children going hungry she dismissed the question as the “wrong characterisation”.
And Conservative MP Lee Anderson caused uproar this week when he claimed there wasn’t “this massive use” for food banks in the UK and that people could really do with a few cooking lessons instead.
There is indeed an argument – periodically wheeled out by Conservatives on the libertarian right – that food banks are fuelling demand, not meeting it.
I went to film at a food bank a while back and was gobsmacked to meet an IT executive who’d just jetted in from South Africa queuing for a free meal just because he could and the food was tasty. But he was in the minority of one. Many of the rest were parents and low earners who didn’t want to be filmed because they were ashamed to admit they couldn’t make ends meet.
MPs are duty bound to play down the scale of misery because otherwise they’d have to justify not doing more to fix it. But on a salary of £84,000 – almost three and a half times the average UK wage – they risk appearing out of touch with the people they’re supposed to represent.
Resolution Foundation analysis of the latest Bank of England figures suggests households will on average be worse off by £1,200 this year, taking into account the tax and benefit changes announced so far.
If you’re taking home £84,000, it’s possible to absorb that. If your disability living allowance pays you just over £60 a week or you’re on a carer’s wage of £12 an hour, though, it’s challenging – if not impossible.
Those arriving in Westminster’s hallowed portals can forget what it’s like to struggle financially – if they ever knew. Lee Anderson used to be a coal miner, so he certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
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On the other hand, although the chancellor’s grandmother was born in a hut in rural Tanzania, he himself benefited from a top public school education and made his own fortune as an investment banker. Does his immense personal wealth make it harder for the man now making crucial decisions about household budgets to understand the scale of the cost of living crisis?
Rishi Sunak knows that his own career now rests on how he helps Britain weather the current economic storm. He’s certainly not the kind of minister to be caught out over the cost of a pint of milk (though he did stumble over the price of a loaf when he said, rather too honestly, that his family enjoyed a “whole range of breads”). No Daily’s medium sliced white bread for him (a steal at 36p in Sainsbury’s, since you asked).
But even his own MPs fret that his gilded life makes it harder for him to relate to the daily struggle and shape policy accordingly. Today, as official figures reveal the scale of the country’s economic woes, he’ll face questions from the media. He might have the cost of bread and milk sorted out, but senior Conservatives want clarity from him not just about the small change but the billions they fear are needed to support people through the financial turmoil ahead.
Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor of ‘Channel 4 News’
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