When Dominic Cummings gave seven hours of evidence to a Commons inquiry into the government's Covid response, it was Matt Hancock who received the most criticism. The former No. 10 senior aide's accusation that the Health Secretary was negligent – the most serious charge being that Hancock had misled the government over testing and care homes – led to questions over Hancock's position. But it quickly became clear No. 10 had no plans to fire Hancock. The Prime Minister opted to rally round his minister rather than cast him out.
So, does the publication of WhatsApp messages allegedly showing the Prime Minister heavily criticising Hancock change things? In a new blog on Substack, Cummings has offered a rebuttal to Hancock's defence over his previous allegations – and published evidence for his claims. The most striking of which is a message Johnson sent in which he appears to call Hancock's efforts 'totally f---ing hopeless'. In another message, Johnson ponders whether he ought to move Hancock and bring in Michael Gove as the new Health Secretary.
In response to the claims, No. 10 have said they don't want to get drawn into specific allegations – and they are yet to even comment on whether these are really Johnson's messages. The messages are embarrassing for Hancock, as since Cummings's evidence there has been an effort to support him and poke holes in Cummings's narrative. The screen grabs suggest Cummings testimony was onto something, even if Johnson is now at pains to suggest his relationship with Hancock is a strong one.
But it's also the case that it doesn't really change No. 10's reasons for wanting to protect Hancock. As one government figure put it: 'It's very much my enemies' enemy is my friend' in 10 Downing Street these days.
By accepting the Cummings critique, aides believe you open Johnson up to more questions over Cummings's criticism of him. It's also the case that the relationship between Johnson and Hancock has improved – and the departure of Cummings means that ministers, including Hancock, find Downing Street much easier to work with.
The bigger issue is how much this undermines Hancock's ability to do his job. Plenty of Tory MPs are already grumpy over the lockdown delay and view Hancock as a dove on this issue. Meanwhile, Hancock also has to oversee reforms within the NHS that give more power to him – at a time when those people he has to work with will be reading that Johnson once described him as useless.