Matt Hancock has not, we can agree, made it his business to lighten the public mood during the pandemic. That lugubrious face was designed by nature for a downbeat message. Who can forget his injunction to 'hug carefully' and responsibly as lockdown eased? (Before that, his regulations meant no one got within hugging distance of anyone.) He would, he said, be hugging his parents outside: 'I’m really looking forward to hugging you, dad, but we’ll probably do it outside and keep the ventilation going: hands, face and space'.
Well! Hands, face and space weren’t quite what came to mind looking at the completely fabulous if grainy pictures in the Sun of Hancock in a clinch – a real adolescent snog – with his adviser, Gina Coladangelo, an old university friend and PR boss.
You may recall the fuss last year at him employing his close friend as an adviser on a £15,000 contract paid by the taxpayer. What were the attributes Hancock found most compelling in his decision to appoint his old friend? We were never told, though it has emerged that the salary may be – or has been – raised by a princely £5,000. A friend of the Health Secretary told the Sun about the story that 'no rules have been broken'. Quite so.
The pictures of Hancock’s snog are from 6 May this year, but obliging Whitehall whistleblowers told the Sun that the pair have been regularly caught in clinches together – 'clinches'! It is one of those words you normally only see in stories like this. The other is 'tryst', which never appears in any other context. As in (from the Sun's report today): 'The office where the tryst happened is where Mr Hancock famously hangs his Damien Hirst portrait of the Queen'.
Oh my goodness! Just think of that. The kiss may have taken place under the Queen’s very image. That must have given added frisson to the encounters.
There is, moreover, an added aspect of the relationship which will make it particularly special for a certain class of Tory; Miss Coladangelo is married to Oliver Tress, founder of Oliver Bonas. Tress named his oddly overpriced smart small furnishings chain after himself and an ex-girlfriend, Anna Bonas, a cousin of Cressida Bonas, Prince Harry's old flame. Piccolo mondo, as they say.
Of course, ministers have already been lined up to give the approved take on the story – presumably after falling around laughing at it. Grant Shapps gave a particularly fine performance on the Today programme, where he said solemnly that 'there is a difference between what people do in their job and what they do in their personal time…I have no intention of commenting on anyone’s personal life. What happens in people’s personal life is a matter for them.'
Yes, yes, Mr Shapps, but what about the public interest aspect, that Miss Coladangelo was employed at taxpayers’ expense to a role advising a minister? 'There is a very rigorous process when people are appointed', he said. 'A very strenuous process involving civil servants. If you appoint someone with public money there is no way a process will not have happened. We do have a straightforward system of appointments.'
So what about the disconnect between Hancock’s public advice and his actual conduct in his very own office? I couldn’t quite catch Mr S’s answer. But that, I’m afraid is what will get the punters worked up. Messrs Hancock and Shapps voted to make it illegal for people to hug each other – with entirely innocent intent – and to send police to apprehend individuals for having coffee on a park bench with friends, and to do in their personal life what it turns out Hancock was doing. One law for them, the other for us.
Cabinet ministers cannot, I’m afraid, hide behind the 'personal life' defence when they actually criminalised any number of aspects of other people’s personal lives. People were banned from kissing under laws that Hancock came up with and Grant Shapps voted for. They could quite easily have framed this as 'guidance' for the public, like the Swedes did, but they didn’t; they sought to criminalise people.
We can expect a lot more weaselly stuff like Mr Shapps’ and other ministers, but it really doesn’t wash. High-minded people may wish that Hancock was brought to book for any number of failures during the course of the pandemic – the scandal of what happened in care homes during the first outbreak, say, or the debacle that was the Test and Trace system. But it’s the hypocrisy that’ll get him.
Apart from the rank disconnect between what he was saying the rest of us should do and what he was up to, as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing like traditional news values and a sex scandal to lift the mood.
I haven’t enjoyed a story so much since Neil Ferguson was outed for having broken lockdown rules which he played a part imposing on the rest of us so as to meet a comely married blonde woman. Hancock’s story is better because he’s more important and his role in framing social distancing laws more crucial.
Admittedly, Tory sex scandals aren’t what they were. I mean, in the Boris Johnson era, the notion of a minister being taken to task for adultery in the office is itself quite humorous. At least Carrie Johnson was employed by the Conservative party as a communications supremo, rather than by the taxpayer, as her relationship with Boris developed.
And nowadays a sex scandal that involves a grown man and woman has a certain quaint appeal. The only pity, really, is that it didn’t happen when parliament was sitting properly, when MPs could have shared their views on the matter in tea rooms and bars. God knows, Labour needs a laugh. I am looking forward very much to someone from the Tory grassroots saying that there is a question of character involved here, which may make the party look again at Hancock’s credentials.
It's all fabulous. The only mercy, as far as Mr H is concerned, is that Kelvin MacKenzie – who wrote so brilliantly about his old paper in last week’s Spectator – isn’t still its editor. If he had been, Hancock would have been in for much tougher treatment.