Martin Lewis: ‘I won’t be applying for the House of Lords again’
“Oh I hate you,” croaks Martin Lewis, about an hour into our interview. The man frequently described as the most trusted bloke in Britain has turned his head to look away from me, but I can see that he has started to cry, and that I am partly to blame, for pushing him on his emotional life. I get the sense he’d rather be discussing the latest interest rate rise.
We have been talking about politics. During last week’s budget, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said he had listened to Lewis and would keep the energy bills cap at £2,500 for the next three months. But the 50-year-old presenter and journalist tells me he isn’t “brave” enough himself to go into politics. “I’m quite a brittle person,” he announces, which surprises me, given how strident he is about money on the television.
“I had quite a difficult time in December and January. I struggled a bit. I think the pressure of the prior year… I don’t want to compare what I’ve gone through, as a wealthy man, to some of the hardships that are out there, but a lot of them come at my face.”
Brexit, the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis… the tumult of the last few years has turned Martin Lewis from mere money man on the telly into one of the most influential people in the country. His ability to hold the government to account – and to get them to actually listen, and change tack – led one newspaper to describe him as “the real shadow chancellor”.
He has over two million followers on Twitter and when I mention that The Martin Lewis Money Show is the most watched current affairs programme on ITV, he has to correct me. It is actually the most watched current affairs programme across all TV.
“When Her Majesty passed, that might pass it [in terms of ratings], but on a regular day-to-day basis, yes, by quite a substantial margin. I mean, far bigger than a Panorama or a Question Time or a Laura Kuenssberg, by large factors”. He is not being arrogant about this, just factual: he is bigger than Laura Kuenssberg but not quite as big as the late Queen, and from 29th March he will begin co-hosting Good Morning Britain alongside Susanna Reid one day a month (they wanted him to do it far more regularly, but he will always be The Money Saving Expert first and foremost, and felt this was as much as he could give the network.)
He is looking forward to the ‘step-change’ of presenting. “This is going to sound really bad – terrible,” he smiles, “but I spent my last 20 years on television answering complicated questions, whereas on Good Morning Britain, all I have to do is ask the questions and listen. It’s a lot easier.” Though to be fair to him, he will be doing a fair bit of answering, too, with regular ‘Wallet Wednesday’ segments where Reid will quiz him about money matters.
Lewis receives a thousand-plus messages a day on social media from people asking for his help, and a good 20 or 30 people approaching him on the street for advice. But as he says, “you can’t help everybody, and it always leaves me feeling slightly sick. The last few years have been hard, very hard for many people in the nation.”
He tells me he is “quite an empathetic person and I find it difficult to read a lot of the messages I get. I found putting my head above the parapet last August in a way I’ve never done before, getting politically involved and pushing for energy intervention, quite difficult. I was trying not to do it in a party political way, and having briefings against me that I never have before, from political circles…”
He looks momentarily crestfallen. “We won’t go into it. Sometimes, life is variable, and I said to my team, ‘I can’t do anything political, I need to stay clear and get on with my day job [as Money Saving Expert]. When you’re not feeling brilliant…” He makes a rare pause. “I don’t want to overstate this. I do not have a clinical mental health problem. But sometimes, you know, I’m not that keen to get out of bed in the morning.”
I ask him how he manages it, on those days. “Because I have obligations and responsibilities to do what I promised and committed to doing.” But lots of people have obligations and responsibilities and still can’t get out of bed because of their mental health, I say. “I don’t want to proselytise on that,” he responds, firmly, before revealing why he set up the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute in 2016.
“I had a bad time in the noughties. I remember thinking ‘thank God I can not go to work today, and I have enough money, and I don’t have to worry about losing my job. Because that’s just not tenable. And I promised myself…” It is here that he starts welling up. “I promised myself that when I could, I would do something about that. Which is why I set up the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute.”
He wipes away his tears, turns back to face me. He is smartly turned out in a suit, not a crease on him. We are sitting in an empty hotel lounge in central London, sharing a bottle of still water (he would have ordered tap, but as we aren’t getting anything else, he feels he should make some sort of contribution). “I have to be careful,” he smiles. “I don’t want to play [up] my mental health issues, they’re nothing compared to other people’s. But people can’t understand when you’re robust and confident and whatever, that you might have brittle mental health. And the fact that I can go up and be really robust most of the time, doesn’t mean I can do it all of the time. Social media is incredibly damaging for that. Sometimes you want to say ‘Not today! Leave me alone today! Today’s really hard!’ But you can’t.”
I would say he is more sensitive than brittle. Along with his sister, he grew up in the grounds of a school for children with special needs, in Cheshire, where his father was headmaster, and he has always been attuned to the feelings of those who are struggling. His own childhood was not without its own tragedies. Three days before his 12th birthday, his mother Susan went out horse riding, and never came back. She had been killed in a hit and run road accident. His teenage years were spent in a sort of daze of magical thinking, not uncommon in children who experience trauma. He stayed in the house, except to go to school – he was not at home when his mother died, and was terrified something bad would happen if he left it again.
When he eventually got to university, to read Government and Law at the London School of Economics, he was dazzled by the possibilities that had been shut off to him at home, locked in his bedroom. He became general secretary of the student’s union and briefly worked in the City after graduating, before leaving to do a post grad in broadcast journalism. Shifts at the BBC followed, but he found the world of personal finance journalism didn’t really suit him.
“It was mainly about investments and protection products, and articles were written in the third person, and they were about issues.” But that didn’t interest Lewis, and he suspected it didn’t much interest the public either. “People want answers,” he says, bluntly. “I do answers, I don’t do issues.” His main focus was on what he calls “consumer finance, which is anything you spend money on. I cannot tell you how different that was at the time.”
He set up MoneySavingExpert.com for £100 twenty years ago, selling it for £87 million ten years later, but while many people might have reasonably retired and put their feet up, Lewis kept going. (He still works there as executive chairman, and has always done all his own research). “I spent a year and half trying to batter down doors to get me on telly programmes,” he explains. “We were told money doesn’t work on telly. [Daytime TV programmes] had chefs, they had stylists, they had psychiatrists, and they’re all great for empowerment, but if you don’t have money to pay for them you can’t do it. If you want raw ultimate empowerment, you put money in people’s pockets, or you at least keep money in people’s pockets when they shouldn’t be spending it unnecessarily.”
Lewis eventually found a home on This Morning, where the phones rang off the hook from his very first segment. His appeal lies in the fact that he is almost as much a performer as he is a journalist. He brings money to life, transforms it from the stuff in our bank accounts (or not, as the case may be) to the stuff that allows us to live. And yet he also has an integrity that is rare in the world of finance. He hates it when people say that money doesn’t matter.
“When people say ‘it’s only money’, I think they’re either very rich or they’ve never known what it’s like not to have plentiful cash. Finance has one of the biggest impacts on our wellbeing. It is one of the biggest causes of divorce, it is one of the biggest causes of mental health problems, and sadly it is one of the biggest causes of people contemplating taking their own lives.” Shame, he says, “is terrible. This is what we have to get rid of. I want people to tell their friends if they’re struggling with debt. Sex and politics, fine, we can talk about that. But you can’t talk about money. We have to change it. It’s damaging.”
In the past, he has described himself as a capitalist who supports the welfare state, but that is as far as he will go in terms of nailing his colours to a political mast. He is not interested in party politics, only getting things done. He is concerned about how divided we are as a nation, financially. “There was £170 billion of extra savings built up over the pandemic, which tended to be for people who were at home working and had much less expenditure. Not the people who had to go out to work, many of the key workers for whom we clapped and did not give pay rises. Which I think is very difficult.”
I ask him about partygate. He gives me a look that suggests he would rather I hadn’t. “I was never invited to any parties at No 10, so I cannot give a view on whether the rules or the guidance were broken. But if the rules and the guidance were broken by the people who were making those rules and guidance, that seems to me to be a breach of responsibility and trust. I think you need to carry the can for it. I think it has been a rather disappointing element of the change in public life over the last 15 years that people cling on rather than leaving. I understand the visceral anger.”
He talks to me about what he calls his ‘professional paranoia’, which essentially involves doing nothing to leave yourself open to accusations of hypocrisy. “It’s done me very well over the last 20 years. And I think that perhaps Boris Johnson’s professional paranoia was not at the levels it should have been to protect him.” He suspects Rishi Sunak has “a much higher level of professional paranoia. What I’ve found about Rishi Sunak is whenever I’ve asked him technical questions on areas that are my subject, I have always got answers. Now I may disagree with his policies, but his answers have always been cohesive and thought through.”
Not so for other members of the government. “Moving ministers around so that they are there five minutes and never really gain any expertise, I find that difficult,” he says. “I’ve met so many university ministers over the years, and the number I have met where the conversation has been remedial...” He tells me he feels sorry for ministers who have to go up against him on his subject. “Because I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and very few ministers have been doing their brief for more than 20 minutes. When an energy minister who has been in the role for three weeks comes on to Good Morning Britain, I’m sitting there thinking ‘this almost feels like bullying’.”
An application he made to be a cross party peer was turned down by the House of Lords last year, partly because he couldn’t give them the time that was required. Though he said at the time that he would re-apply, he has changed his mind. “I won’t be applying for the House of Lords again. I’m not sure I would enjoy it,” he tells me. “And actually, I’ve got to a point where in influence terms, I’m not sure it would make any difference to me. I’m not sure if I had the title ‘Lord’ it would have any more impact.” I suggest it might even diminish some of his influence in the eyes of the public, who see him as their friend. “Possibly,” he nods.
He freely admits he is a workaholic. “My work focus is obscene,” he tells me, quite happily. ‘My job is like being an athlete. As long as I am in training, I can do it. But if I go on holiday then I have to catch up to get back up to speed. I have to retrain.” But Lewis says he works less than he used to – 70 hour weeks are down to 40 hours a week (I’m not sure I believe him). He is certainly rich enough that he never need work again, but the idea appalls him – not because he wants to make more money, but because he still has so much to give. “I feel a responsibility to give back, to not give up just because I’ve made it. I don’t want to sound self-aggrandising but I don’t think there is anyone who would step into my shoes if I stopped tomorrow. I’m desperate for the cost of living crisis to end so I can take my foot off the gas, but I feel I have a responsibility at the moment not to.” He chuckles. “My wife says I’m talking nonsense. She doesn’t believe it. And I think she probably knows me better than I do.”
Lewis has been married to the BBC tech journalist Lara Lewington since 2009, and they have a ten-year-old daughter, Sapphire. Putting Sapphire to bed is a responsibility he takes very seriously. “She’s wonderful and she needs her father to be present. She needs that time. She’s going to be a teenager soon, I’m going to take [time with her] as long as I can get it.” He tells me he puts her to bed twelve nights out of 14, does 20,000 steps a day, and probably gets about six hours’ sleep a night. He is all about the numbers.
Tonight Lewis is off to host a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of MoneySavingExpert.Com. “It’s in the basement of a pub, which is very Money Saving Expert,” he smiles. But I get the impression that Lewis, for all his scrimping and saving, is a generous man, loyal to a fault. “I’m not interested in money for money’s sake,” he tells me at one point.
“The work I do is all about manifestly improving people’s quality of living. Debt is terrible for your mental health and for social mobility. And if you’re not in debt, making sure that your money goes further is about giving you greater utility in life, giving you greater happiness. So absolutely, that is what the driver is. That’s what keeps me getting out of bed.”
Martin Lewis is on Good Morning Britain from Wednesday 29th March at 6am on ITV1 & ITVX