Last night, I had a call from a government minister who was incandescent at the idea of Matt Hancock being allowed to stay as Health Secretary. If he continued, the minister argued, it would mean the Tory Party is telling the world that it’s okay with rank hypocrisy – and quite happy breaking the rules they ruthlessly set for other people. A few MPs were quiet in public and even the normally gossipy Tory MP WhatsApp group was silent. This was a sign of rage too deep to express. Some were making their views clear to Number 10.
It was Matt Hancock who had pushed to criminalise the private lives of others, rather than just make Covid guidelines voluntary. It was Hancock who told people not to start new relationships outside of “established” ones. It was Hancock who said there should be no leeway in his rules for personal relationships, that we should adhere to them "letter and spirit." And Hancock who, at every turn, was urging longer and stricter lockdown. So when footage emerged of him breaking all kinds of boundaries, observing neither the letter or the spirit of his own laws, he ended up in a politically unsurvivable position.
The MPs' silence was unlikely to last all weekend. especially if fresh details emerged. There are reports that he has ended his marriage abruptly, driving home on Thursday to dump Martha, his wife and mother of his three kids, before heading off to a new life with Gina Coladangelo. Some reports say Martha suspected nothing and she has even been struggling with long Covid, after catching the virus from him. Some of these reports are hard to believe – who, really, can know such details? But they matter because this is what No10 will have feared was coming. The power of such details was shown in the Robin Cook affair: he dumped his wife in Heathrow over the phone after a newspaper exposed his affair with an aide. All this resonates more than, say, squabbles over who Covid and care homes. Then comes the issued of illegality: Labour has asked the Met to investigate if Hancock’s fumbling in his office would have broken the laws that he created. More developments along these lines would be likely.
The Sunday Times has something more significant: that Hancock took Mrs Coladangelo to the G7 health ministers’ summit, raising questions about whether they stayed together (the event took place a month after their being filmed canoodling in his office). The brilliantly-informed Tim Shipman has a devastating quote from a Cabinet source.
“She went with him to the G7 health ministers summit. Did he disclose this to the PM? If it was shown he was shagging on the taxpayer he had to go. He’s been puritan-in-chief in the government and now it turns out he’s a massive, lying hypocrite.”
This language squares with what I’ve been told by other ministers – all of whom are now expecting to have their private lives pored over, thanks to the Hancock affair. In this week’s magazine, Kate Andrews has dossier of how ministers have been living la vida loca, travelling globally at a time when they made it illegal for others to do so. All within the loophole-addled rules, yes, but generally conducting themselves in a way that others have been unable to do.
Number 10 is being careful to say that it did not ask for any resignation and in his resignation video, Hancock listed his achievements and used phrases like “build back better” as if preparing the ground for his own return to government. Sajid Javid has proved that this is possible. Quick returns are made more likely by quick, clean exits. After careful consideration, Hancock may well have decided that his longer-term longevity is best served in quitting now. Hancock is a young man – I suspect he’ll be back in the Cabinet by the end of next year.
He had been one of the frontbench survivors, due to his having political skill deeper than his huge number of enemies would allow. In the end he was felled not by terrible behaviour but breaking rules he made, and having pushed so hard to criminalise the private lives of others. He was unable to live up to his rules, and all of those who voted for them ought to reflect on whether it was far to make the most intimate aspects of our lives a matter for law – rather than voluntary guidance. We’ll see, in the next few weeks, if the Prime Minister takes this wider lesson to heart.