Boris Johnson does not like being “pushed around by the media”, as he sees it. As a journalist himself, he is contemptuous of the trade as only a fellow typist can be. As a poacher, he was watchful when Tony Blair gave in to the media hoo-ha over Peter Mandelson – twice. As a gamekeeper, he tells himself he is not going to make the same mistake.
Hence the brisk conversation yesterday with Matt Hancock, followed by Hancock’s apology and a Downing Street spokesperson saying the prime minister regards the matter as closed. It is a holding position, but Johnson’s intention, I think, is that it should hold until 23 July. Then, as parliament disperses for its summer break, he can reshuffle his cabinet on his own terms.
The flaw in that plan is that Johnson gets the worst of both worlds, as he did when he refused to sack Dominic Cummings as chief adviser over his interpretation of coronavirus rules when he fled to Durham. Public opinion was outraged by Cummings’s hypocrisy, and the standing of the prime minister and the government suffered as a result. We learned later that Johnson was annoyed with Cummings, and that the incident was the cause of the breakdown of their relationship – which had been close, if “complicated”, as it was described to me at the time.
So Cummings was sacked eventually, long after the damage was done. But politicians sometimes do things that are against their interests, as Hancock can testify, and Johnson has a truculent self-regard that means he sometimes shuts down and waits for a storm to pass. Often it does. He still hasn’t given a full account of the redecoration of his Downing Street flat, or of the delivery of £27,000-worth of takeaway food there, saying he paid for them both in the end, as if the public has no right to know more.
That storm subsided, but this one is likely to rage on. Hancock has admitted breaking coronavirus guidelines, which ought to be enough alone to require his resignation, but he may have broken coronavirus law as well. And there are enough questions about how Gina Coladangelo was employed as a health department director to keep journalists busy for weeks. Then, suppose that reopening has to be postponed again: how could Hancock possibly address the nation and ask it to observe the rules once more?
It seems perverse for Johnson to keep Hancock on simply to avoid the appearance of being dictated to by The Sun, when he doesn’t even have a close and complicated relationship with his health secretary. “Totally effing hopeless” may have been an expression of momentary frustration in that WhatsApp message to Cummings in March last year, but it hardly suggests total confidence.
There are times when doing now what you know you will have to do later is the best course. It is not the media hoo-ha that matters, but public opinion, and on this public opinion is clear – even after taking into account the tendency of people to say that any politician should be sacked because they are a politician.
The irony is that Hancock survived the most sustained and venomous attempt to dislodge a minister in recent politics, having seen off Cummings’s campaign against him. The remarkable thing about Cummings’s assault not just on Hancock but on Johnson is how ineffective it has been, despite all the confidential WhatsApp messages and emails. They provide a valuable picture for historians of incompetence and confusion at the heart of government, but few of the specific charges have been backed up.
It is notable, for example, that no one else has corroborated the claim that Johnson retreated to his study in a temper and said “let the bodies pile high”. I am told that Cummings may have misheard, and that what the prime minister actually said was a question, asking what his anti-lockdown MPs wanted – “Do they want me to say, ‘Let the bodies pile high’?”
By attacking Hancock so extravagantly as a “liar” and being unable to back it up, Cummings seemed to make him unsackable. If Johnson doesn’t like giving in to the media, he certainly couldn’t be seen to be giving in to an embittered former adviser. But now Hancock has brought his own career to an end. The only question is when the formalities are completed.
I imagine that Johnson was always intending Hancock to have gone by the time of the public inquiry. If a sacrificial victim were needed, the health secretary would be the obvious choice. I understand that the prime minister is leaning towards getting the inquiry out of the way quickly – partly because, thanks to Cummings, “there will be nothing in it we don’t already know”.
But it won’t start until next year. By then, Hancock will have been long gone.