At his most recent audience with the Queen, Boris Johnson assured her that the health secretary was “full of beans”. That’s not all Matt Hancock is full of, but one thing he has none of is credibility. Even he eventually saw that when he abandoned an increasingly desperate attempt to cling on to office and belatedly resigned last night.
The problem with him remaining in post was not his infidelity. If being unfaithful to your marital vows was still regarded as incompatible with holding high ministerial office, Mr Johnson would not be prime minister. The problem is that the health secretary had broken the public trust. Rule-breaking is not unfamiliar behaviour from this cabinet, but his was the most egregious example yet of a minister believing that “rules are only for the little people”. Because the health secretary has such critical responsibilities for sustaining public confidence in the handling of the pandemic and the fairness of restrictions, this scandal was even more dangerously toxic than Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaking excursions.
The health secretary deserved no credit for his euphemistic admission “I breached the social distancing guidance”. He could hardly have done otherwise once the Sun had published footage of him in a “steamy clinch” with an aide who is paid for by the taxpayer and also happens to be a friend since they were students.
The pictures show him gripping the bum of Gina Coladangelo at a distance a lot closer than two metres while they swabbed each other’s tonsils with their tongues. After a cursory concession that he “let people down”, the health secretary had pleaded for “privacy for my family on this personal matter”. In a further attempt to draw a line under what I cannot resist calling Cockgate, Number 10 announced that the prime minister “considers the matter closed”.
Yet they couldn’t slam the door on this that glibly, as last night’s resignation proved. Nor was Mr Hancock going to be allowed to use “privacy” and “family” as an invisibility cloak to hide from scrutiny. The government has been intruding into the private lives of tens of millions of citizens during the pandemic. People have been told that they can’t cradle a dying parent in their arms or dance with each other at a wedding. He designed those rules. He put them on the statute book. Night after night, he has occupied a Downing Street lectern to demand compliance with life-saving restrictions, telling us that they are “deadly serious” and that everyone has a “personal responsibility” to comply with rules that are “there for everyone”. But not quite for everyone. Not for him. He awarded himself a secret exemption from the “personal responsibility” he urged on everyone else. When the choice was between being “deadly serious” about following the rules he enacted or having a French kiss in his office in working hours, he chose the snog at a time when it was illegal to hug someone from another household at the funeral of a relative. “It’s blatant hypocrisy,” says a former Tory cabinet minister, speaking to me before the health secretary finally quit. “Number 10 is defending the indefensible.” The charge carries more sting because Mr Hancock was an unforgiving scourge of other rule-breakers. No one was more fast or furious to condemn the “extraordinary” behaviour of Professor Neil Ferguson when he was caught with a lover. The professor’s resignation was the “right decision”, proclaimed the same Mr Hancock who initially refused to quit for a very similar offence.
When the scandal broke, the calculation between him and Number 10 was that he could brazen out fury about such flagrant double standards, but that began to unravel as the inboxes of Conservative MPs filled up with voters expressing their rage. There were also extremely important questions about whether he has broken the law or breached the ministerial code. Those questions don’t disappear with his resignation. There’s a cronyistic dimension that has additional bite because this government already has a lot of form on that score.
Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo met as undergraduates at Oxford when they worked together at the student radio station. She read the news and he did the sport. He graduated into politics and she into lobbying. She was a director, and remains a shareholder, of the lobbyists Luther Pendragon, which brags to clients that it offers a “deep understanding of the mechanics of government”. A source told the Sunday Times: “Before Matt does anything big, he’ll speak to Gina. She knows everything.” Another said: “She has access to lots of confidential information.” The footage from the health secretary’s ministerial suite suggests that this was seriously under-selling her access to Mr Hancock. Sky News has reported that her brother, Roberto, is an executive at a healthcare company with several NHS contracts. It was revealed in November that Ms Coladangelo had been awarded a role as a non-executive director at the Department of Health in September. I say revealed because this was only exposed by enterprising journalism. There was no public record of the appointment. Did their affair start before or after she was put on the payroll? Her role is supposed to entail giving supervision to the department. How could she do that dispassionately when she was in a clandestine relationship with the health secretary? If there are not conflicts of interest here, I am a banana.
Early this week, Mr Hancock was due to present his legislation to reorganise the NHS, a plan with an ambition to give himself increased powers over appointments to NHS trusts and the awarding of contracts. Concern that this will become a charter for cronyism, an issue that has been smouldering since he first outlined his scheme, will now flare more fiercely. His refusal to do the right thing and resign instantly says a lot about his shamelessness. Mr Johnson’s unwillingness to remove him straight away speaks to the character of the prime minister. Few previous premiers have been flawless exemplars of ethical purity, but they did prefer people to think that they attached importance to the integrity of their ministers. That meant hideous hypocrisy, naked mendacity and grossly bad behaviour would be penalised with either an enforced resignation or the sack. This was not a guarantee of decent conduct at all times, but it did provide some kind of curb on abuse, if only by instilling ministers with some fear of the consequences of being caught. I am not talking about some long-lost age of honour here. When Theresa May was prime minister, several cabinet ministers were fired or obliged to resign when their personal or professional conduct was judged lacking. It is only since Mr Johnson moved into Number 10 that ministers have been encouraged to believe that there is no disgrace so appalling that it will result in the sack.
This flows from the prime minister’s own biography of rule-breaking. His history disqualifies him from being the scrutineer of his ministers’ ethics that a prime minister needs to be. Mr Johnson is a serial adulterer and one of his lovers received a lot of public money from City Hall when he was mayor of London. Trying to explain why the health secretary was still in his job on Friday evening, one senior Tory told me: “Boris had to forgive Hancock because of his own behaviour.”
That would have meant leaving him in post with a shredded reputation when the pandemic is far from over and the national interest demands that the health secretary commands respect and credibility with both NHS professionals and the public. How could Matt Hancock ever again intone “Hands, face, space” and expect to be taken seriously? There was a significant danger of fatal consequences from retaining a disgraced health secretary. The prime minister’s initial assumption was his default one about scandals: media storms will blow themselves out and most of the public have as little interest in integrity in government as he does. So the ethics invigilator can judge Priti Patel guilty of breaching the ministerial code on bullying civil servants and she remains as home secretary. Robert Jenrick can be found to have expedited an unlawful planning decision that saved a Tory donor a lot in tax and continue in cabinet. Gavin Williamson can be a serial incompetent and still draw a ministerial salary. Under the same twisted doctrine of non-accountability, the prime minister’s first instinct was that Mr Hancock could cling on as health secretary.
He may have gone now, but the slowness of his departure leaves the continuing impression that Boris Johnson’s government thinks there is one rule for us and no rules for them.