Readers of a certain vintage may remember that during the Falklands War a hitherto unknown official at the Ministry of Defence became something of a celebrity.
Ian McDonald, who passed away last year at the age of 82, was a dry-as-dust Whitehall official from the days when civil servants actively tried to avoid the limelight. And yet his monotone delivery as official spokesman at MoD press conferences turned him into a cult figure and 'the voice' of the war.
His calmness and uncanny ability to never offer an accidentally quotable soundbite alongside the factual but minimal information he conveyed was just what was required to keep the nation fixed on the task at hand. It is, therefore, meant as a compliment when I say that Health Secretary Matthew Hancock has put me in mind of Mr McDonald with his public performances this week on the subject of coronavirus.
Excitable his is not. Hancock has deftly swerved every invitation to say something dramatic. When one broadcast journalist asked him to give a 'guarantee' that nobody would die of Covid-19 due to shortcomings in the NHS, Hancock began his answer with: 'As you know, I never give guarantees where healthcare is concerned…' before explaining how the NHS is well-equipped to deal with the challenges.
Only this morning, he went into what is currently one of the more challenging TV lion’s dens – a tussle with a more than usually animated Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. Time and again Morgan tried to throw the minister off-script, calling for a China-style lockdown and inviting him to agree that it was time for the Government to 'start getting ahead of this by actually taking dramatic action'.
Hancock replied that while the crisis was 'very concerning' people should carry on living their normal lives because the scientific advice was that shutting down communities was not yet necessary.
'We have a clear plan that we are setting out today of how the country can get through this as well as possible. We are still in the phase very much where we are trying to contain this disease and working internationally and stop it becoming widespread throughout the whole country, as it has in other places,' said Hancock.
Preparing the ground for big measures while saying those measures are not yet necessary is just the ticket. And rather than running around Corporal Jones-style shouting 'don’t panic!' in a panic-ridden voice, Hancock conveyed the same message in the vocal style of the speaking clock, shorn of excitable metaphors or loose-end soundbites. It was a masterclass in taking the heat out of a situation while leaving the media class without material for a disaster movie script.
Given the importance of those speaking for the government having command of the detail in a public health crisis, Mr Hancock’s unremarkable face and voice are liable to become fixtures in our front rooms over the next couple of months. I predict that cult status is not far off as he ponders in advance what extra touches he can add to make his next performance even less excitable than his last one.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as they say. This all suits him far better than did the role he chose for himself last year – that of the Tory leadership contender who could take on Boris Johnson and beat him to the crown. Going in for the kill at the start of that contest, it was Hancock who declared in hyperbolic, attention-seeking style: 'To the people who say "fuck business", I say "fuck fuck business".' That outburst provoked a lot of sniggering and eye-rolling in the Westminster Village and fell embarrassingly flat. Less than three weeks later he dropped out of the contest and – to the disgust of some supporters - backed Mr Johnson.
One was put in mind of one of those wildlife TV shows where a youngish male sealion belches out a challenge, only to be forcefully reminded of his position in the pecking order by the resident beach hareem-master and heavyweight head of the herd.
Privately Hancock has a reputation for being a cheerful, plucky and resilient soul. Should political fashions change and people wish to switch away from the charismatic egotists who currently preside over Western politics and towards duller reliable technocrats, then he may genuinely be a contender.