Voices: We all know why Rishi Sunak won’t tell us if he uses private healthcare

Polished and confident as he often is, Rishi Sunak’s first set piece TV interview of the year turned out to be a bit of an ordeal. You could almost sense the anxiety, if not panic, in the prime minister’s earnest puppy dog eyes when Laura Kuenssberg asked him if he was registered with a private GP.

After a second’s hesitation, when he seemed to acknowledge that indeed he did – he can afford it, after all – he simply refused to answer the question. Point blank. Three times. It was as if she’d asked him to confess his worst sins. He wasn’t going to, and he sounded evasive about it, and silly with it.

It’s not relevant, apparently. It’s a “distraction”. His dad was in general practice, and his mum was a pharmacist, which doesn’t really matter so much right now, and it’s fair to add they’d both be in private businesses relying on the NHS for at least some of their revenues. But it sheds no light on where Rishi goes if he’s feeling a bit dicky. It’s a family matter, Sunak pleaded. Leave me alone, he didn’t quite say.

His interlocutor, Kuenssberg, looked as pleased as someone who’d scored the winning goal for a non-league club against a top premiership side in the FA Cup. She gleefully pointed out, with long experience on her side, that questions that politicians don’t wish to answer don’t always stay unanswered. So it will be in this case.

Besides, it’s perfectly obvious that if the PM or the Sunaks only ever used the NHS, like the vast majority of the country, he’d have been more than happy to boast about it, the better to bolster his “one nation” credentials and to stress his personal commitment to the service. That is something that at least one of his Conservative predecessors, John Major, was always pleased to do, after the NHS saved his leg after a car accident. David Cameron sometimes spoke movingly about the care the NHS provided for his late disabled son, Ivan.

Another predecessor, by contrast, Margret Thatcher, was happy to declare that she needed to see the doctor she wanted at the time she wanted, and to get things done rapidly. The point is that they were all prepared to be transparent and open about their personal choices as public servants.

That was why Sunak’s reticence was a bit of a mini-disaster for him. It merely provokes more questions about his use of private hospitals and indeed private education, and highlights how wealthy he is. It tends to support the argument that he’s out of touch – and that’s a very dangerous thing for a democratic politician.

The unkind will recall the old documentary clip from when he was a teenager and he joshed about not having any working-class friends. He may just have cost himself the few he’s since made.

The public have a right to know such things and are doubly offended if they perceive that someone like Sunak is treating them like fools. Everyone knows he’s rich enough to afford private care. Indeed, everyone knows his family is so loaded that they wouldn’t even need the usual kind of private health insurance some well-off people enjoy, but which doesn’t cover chronic conditions such as cancer or dementia. The Sunaks are so wealthy that they can pay for all of that without noticing. Lucky them.

One of Sunak’s political problems is that he is too rich to be prime minister, and certainly too rich to be in the job at a time of hardship and recession. His public interactions seem to be awkward or staged. As chancellor, he pretended to own a Kia Rio for a photo shoot, and struggled to use a contactless card. His recent exchange with a homeless man about working in business went viral in all the worst ways. He seems like a visitor from another planet, Planet Privilege.

It has been well-noted that until recently, his family, worth hundreds of millions of pounds, enjoyed the lavish advantages of non-dom status, radically reducing their tax bills in an arrangement closed off to the vast majority of his fellow citizens. The British people are fair-minded enough not to resent Sunak’s wealth as such, but they are right to wonder whether he can really understand the challenges the rest of us face over paying the gas bill, feeding the family, paying for a holiday and affording a roof over their heads.

Sunak seems a bit detached from reality. His big idea on education is to make pupils study maths until they’re 18, which is absurd. He seems to view poverty through the lens of spreadsheets. He has never had to worry about a waiting list, or getting his kids the best education and thus the best start in life.

No doubt he is a patriotic man who cares deeply about the country and believes he is doing the right things to improve everyone’s standard of living. He rightly says he can’t help anyone unless inflation is under control. But he hasn’t got the knack – the common touch – that his predecessors had, and that’s a weakness. Some could fool people into believing they weren’t as posh as they are (Boris Johnson and, less successfully, David Cameron) or because they came from relatively humble beginnings (William Hague, Major and Thatcher).

But Sunak just ran away from a reasonable question about having a private GP, as if he had something to hide. He isn’t going to win back the red wall by doing that.