Is Matt Hancock being lined up as the 'fall guy' over coronavirus? That's the suggestion being made today following a number of stories questioning the Health Secretary's performance. The most striking of which is the Telegraph splash on a Downing Street source describing Hancock's 100,000 test target as 'irrational', 'arbitrary' and a mistaken response to media pressure. The paper also quotes a former cabinet minister questioning Hancock's general approach: 'There is a view growing in Cabinet that Matt has gone off on one – a sort of Messiah complex, as one described it to me'. Ministers are now suggesting Hancock could be moved from Health before any public inquiry begins.
Officially, the Prime Minister is sticking by Hancock with a No. 10 spokesman coming to his defence today. In a show of strength, the Health Secretary is also leading today's press conference. But behind the scenes there has been tension over the testing target. As I reported earlier this month, Hancock’s promise of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month raised eyebrows in other departments. At the time, his government critics viewed it as a pledge he had personally made and must deliver or face the consequences. While Johnson previously spoke of a 250,000 test a day target it was not a promise accompanied by a hard deadline.
What didn't help matters was Hancock's general performance in that press conference on 2 April. Hancock spoke for over an hour and made a point of taking follow up questions from hacks. It followed Alok Sharma's heavily criticised performance the previous day. While Hancock won immediate plaudits from journalists that day, it left a sour taste in the mouths of some of his colleagues who complained that the Health Secretary appeared to be enjoying his moment in the sun a little too much.
As PPE shortages continue and Hancock appears to be on track to miss his 100,000 target in just over a week's time, it's now easy for government critics to get one back on the Health Secretary. However, rather than a calculated campaign to put blame on Hancock, it could also mark a return to normal.
In the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the papers were filled with plenty of cabinet in-fighting – Gove and Hancock were clashing in meetings while Robert Jenrick was dubbed 'Robert Generic'. This came to a sudden halt when the Prime Minister was admitted to intensive care and Raab was put in charge in his absence. There was a concerted effort in government to be on best behaviour in Johnson's absence. With Johnson slowly easing himself back into work (from Chequers) and any cross-party truce also over, it seems ministers, too, are reverting back to their old ways.