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Slow Views

Yes, I was hugged by Matt Hancock

Monday 28 June 2021

His resignation was inevitable and has bequeathed the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, a series of formidable challenges. It has also left Number 10 fearful that this is only the beginning of a media feeding frenzy


Full disclosure: I was hugged by Matt Hancock in his ministerial office. To be precise, the embrace, in late 2019, took place just outside the door to his inner sanctum – without so much as a decorous check to see if the coast was clear, or that his officials weren’t looking (they were).

Though I can’t be sure whether the decidedly unsteamy clinch was captured on CCTV, I do have a hunch that he was trying to signal mild contrition of some kind. Having sworn privately in the Conservative leadership contest of that summer that he was running to “stop Boris Johnson”, he had accepted the victorious Johnson’s invitation to stay in post as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, claiming that he could now “fight from the inside”. 

This was slippery, to say the least. But speculation of this sort is not profitable. We Hancock Hug Survivors know that it is best, if possible, not to dwell on the past, but to move on, a day at a time.

Was his performance as health secretary, as the prime minister put it to Dominic Cummings in a WhatsApp message in March 2020, “totally fucking hopeless”? No, not totally. 

On PPE, test and trace, and (above all) the discharge of elderly Covid patients into care homes, his record was pretty dismal. But Hancock’s instincts on the necessity of national lockdowns were more finely tuned than those of many of his former cabinet colleagues.

Furthermore: it was he that got the vaccine scientists of Oxford University to the altar with AstraZeneca in May 2020, ensuring that the UK would receive a guaranteed 100 million doses if the product passed regulatory trials (a legally binding undertaking that Oxford’s usual partners, Merck & Co, would not make). This was a significant step on the path to the vaccine roll-out of which millions of us have been beneficiaries.

The problem, as Andy Cowper wrote in his prescient Slow View on Friday, was that Hancock had alienated many of his staff and failed conspicuously to build up a following in the parliamentary party. His mentor, George Osborne, always nurtured and maintained a fiercely loyal group of Conservative MPs during his six years as chancellor. But Hancock took no such precautions as he climbed the ladder of high office – which meant that there were no wagons to circle on Friday after the disclosure of his affair with his married aide Gina Coladangelo.

In truth, he should have grasped that he was doomed as soon as he learned at 6pm on Thursday of the Sun’s scoop. In and of itself, the collapse of his marriage is a private misfortune with no intrinsic bearing upon his political career. “Stopping being married to someone,” Kingsley Amis wrote, “is an incredibly violent thing to happen to you.” True enough; but it is also nobody else’s business.

Infidelity often ruins lives, but it should not automatically poleaxe political careers. What did for Hancock was his flagrant abuse of the very lockdown rules he had himself enacted – “Napoleonic”, to use his own term – and his disregard for the ministerial code. 

Worse, he and Johnson decided to wait and see how the story played, and whether the storm could be ridden. This was the prime minister at his weakest, both indecisive and stubborn: determined not to give in to the media, or to Dominic Cummings, who has been waging war on Hancock, in private and now in public, since well before the pandemic.

Had the PM and soon-to-be-ex-health secretary been thinking clearly, they would have recalled the remarkable extent to which Cummings’ own breaches of lockdown rules last year cut through to voters; and had been bitterly resented by millions of people separated from their loved ones, confined to their homes, furious to learn that the governing elite regarded itself as exempt from the very regulations it had imposed.

And this was a scandal with its very own promotional video (once witnessed, never unseen). Hancock was never going to survive – especially in the days leading up to an important by-election in Batley and Spen which the Tories badly want to win.

Yet a full two days elapsed between his discovery of the Sun’s story and the posting on Twitter of an apology to the nation, announcing his resignation and his regret for his conduct. This was not an ethical decision but a political calculation – and every hour that Hancock delayed his announcement will make it that much harder for him to come back to the front line of politics.

For now, the controversy that detonated on Thursday night continues to spray shrapnel across Whitehall. There is the pointed question of the CCTV footage and how it was leaked: an extraordinary breach of security, whatever the motives of the whistleblower.

There is fresh controversy over the former health secretary’s use of a private email account and – related to this – the persistent allegations of cronyism in the awarding of Covid-related contracts. Cummings, furthermore, is the kind of assassin who keeps firing bullets into the corpse: we can expect further disclosures from Dom about his nemesis, probably in reader-friendly 856-tweet threads.

Indeed, we were already in Scooby Doo territory with Cummings’ positively deranged post on Saturday evening after Sajid Javid was appointed to replace Hancock: “So Carrie appoints Saj! NB If I hadn’t tricked PM into firing Saj, we’d have had a HMT with useless SoS/spads, no furlough scheme, total chaos instead of JOINT 10/11 team which was a big success. Saj = bog standard = chasing headlines + failing = awful for NHS. Need #RegimeChange.”

To decode (or try to): Cummings, who loathes the PM’s wife, alleges that Javid, for whom she once worked as an adviser, was Carrie Johnson’s choice as the new health secretary rather than her husband’s. He then asserts that Javid’s departure as chancellor in February 2020 was all part of his own cunning plan – although he does not explain how, exactly, he “tricked” the PM into “firing” Javid.

In fact, Javid resigned because (quite rightly) he could not agree to Johnson’s ludicrous insistence that he accept a new group of advisers approved by Number 10. Why Cummings believes that Javid would not have approved the furlough scheme is mysterious; his assertion that the former chancellor and home secretary was “bog standard” is subjective at best; and his charge that Javid is given to “chasing headlines” is so hypocritical that it requires no further comment.

Loopiest of all is the new hashtag #RegimeChange, which makes it sound as though Cummings is preparing a resolution at the UN Security Council to send weapons inspectors into the Johnsons’ newly-refurbished flat. More probably, it is clunky code for: “Vote Rishi! You know it makes sense!” The spoonful of sugar in Cummings’ recent bilefest has been his doe-eyed admiration for the chancellor and transparent ambition to be (as always) the kingmaker. I do wonder whether this is an endorsement that the very ambitious Sunak finds especially welcome.

This sort of thing will not bother Javid, who is temperamentally disinclined to the sort of love-hate histrionics that poisoned Johnson’s relationship with Cummings. Yesterday, his appointment was welcomed across the party divide by senior figures ranging from Alan Johnson to Jeremy Hunt (both former health secretaries).

Certainly, he will need all the good will and support that he can get. As Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the Council of the British Medical Association, told Sky’s Trevor Phillips yesterday: The new health secretary is going to see a baptism of fire. He won’t have the luxury of a phased handover”.

This is indisputable. Amongst the items in Javid’s in-tray are: the surge of the Delta variant; the forthcoming health reform bill, a significant piece of legislation; the government’s promise to deliver a social care blueprint by the end of the year; the woeful inadequacy of mental health services; and a shortage of doctors and nurses that is close to systemic crisis.

Top of the pile is the imminent decision on the lifting (or not) of all lockdown restrictions on 19 July. It is true that Javid is pragmatic and responsive to data. It is also the case, however, that his core politics are strongly libertarian. 

This was made strikingly clear at the inaugural meeting in 2015 of a Westminster film club founded by Tortoise’s own Peter Hoskin, at which the then culture secretary introduced The Fountainhead, King Vidor’s 1949 adaptation of Ayn Rand’s bonkers novel.

In the course of his remarks that night, Javid revealed that he had “read the courtroom scene to my future wife” – a scene which hinges on a speech by the central character, Howard Roark, and includes the ultra-libertarian line: “The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is – Hands off!” (You can read a full account here).

This is not an auspicious maxim, you might suppose, for a new health secretary to have lodged in his head. I don’t imagine for a minute that Javid is inclined to dismantle and sell off the NHS simply to remain true to his youthful Randian dreams. But it is wise to recall his political roots, as well as his background as a very successful banker.

Like Sunak (who was his chief secretary), he is, at heart, a fiscal conservative, an enemy of deficits and spiralling debt. Of course, he will fight with the Treasury for a decent settlement for his new department in the next Budget and Spending Review. What he will not do is argue for a truly radical increase in health spending, or – say – a comprehensive wealth tax to pay for NHS reforms and a new social care system. In this respect, his appointment is a victory for standard Tory fiscal prudence rather than Johnson’s spend-spend-spend “blue Keynesianism” (an escalating and all-important battle).

Such is the initial policy fall-out of the Hancock H-bomb. As for the politics: there is a clear and present danger, causing deep anxiety in Number 10, that this story will trigger an old-fashioned media feeding frenzy, as the vultures circle over the flawed private lives and fragile marriages of other senior government figures. At least one such relationship is under intense scrutiny and causing Johnson’s team serious concern. “The story could break at any moment,” concedes one Downing Street source.

I hope that the threat of this frenzy fades. Those who remember the Back to Basics fiasco of 1993-4 – in which more than a dozen senior members of John Major’s government resigned over “sleaze” allegations or sexual peccadilloes – will also remember how sour and priggish it quickly became. 

It seemed, after the outing of Peter Mandelson and Nick Brown in 1998, that a new consensus – unofficial but reasonably robust – had been reached. Namely, that a politician’s private life was his or her own business, unless it involved hypocrisy or rule-breaking. This struck me then, and strikes me still, as progress.

Yet the populist era has confused matters. Personality rather than competence has become the very essence of politics; charisma is rewarded rather than credentials; too many journalists compound the problem by reporting their own feelings about a story, rather than the story itself; and, in the process, political life becomes a branch of the entertainment industry, a spectacle and a soap opera rather than a serious democratic process. 

Soap operas, of course, must have their villains and heroes, their loathed “love rats” and their cheerfully-indulged Lotharios: why does the PM get away with it, and not Hancock? Because he is popular: but that, in a sense, is merely to restate the question. The difference remains arbitrary. What unites the narrative is salacious fascination masquerading as principled accountability.

Does it matter that we don’t even know how many children the PM has? The better question is how we got to a point where it is even an issue. And the answer is uncomfortably obvious: because we allowed it, even, in some cases, cheering on the PM’s disregard for convention or conformity, nudging and winking when we should have been behaving like citizens. 

We cheerfully endorsed a Don Juan as our prime minister, gave implicit encouragement to a fractious melodrama rather than a serious government, and rewarded him and it, never forget, with an 80-seat majority.

Why, then, are we so surprised that Hancock acted as he did? This is the kind of politics that we voted for, after all. This is the style of smirking leadership that we invited to sit atop our most important institutions. This is what happens when a nation so recklessly applauds absolute shamelessness. It is a little late now to complain about its sweaty embrace.