We need to talk about Matt. Even with his new haircut – not that he particularly needed one, but all cabinet ministers had been under orders to have a pint and go to the hairdresser for a photo op on the first day of the easing of lockdown at the weekend – Matt Hancock is looking a shadow of his former self.
His face looks drawn, his shoulders droop, and his previously even-tempered nature has become progressively more testy. You might even imagine he has been kicked out of his home and has taken to sleeping under his desk in his office, for every time he appears in public he is dressed in an identical suit and pink tie.
Someone should break it to him that his lucky tie isn’t that lucky.
The only lucky break the health secretary has caught in the last few weeks is the prime minister’s decision to abandon the daily Downing Street press conference, sparing him the ritual of being humiliated at least twice a week live on TV.
But Matt still dies countless other deaths in his thankless task of trying to defend the indefensible: not just his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but Boris Johnson’s own personal take on it.
With the government doing its best to try to persuade the country that the coronavirus is no longer such a big deal, the only way Labour can actually get any halfway reliable information about the progress of the pandemic is to ask an urgent question in the Commons. And the health secretary didn’t appear best pleased to be dragged in to answer it as he raced through a cursory update.
The virus was more or less under control, he said, though Leicester was an annoying outlier, and people should be getting on with enjoying the summer. After all, we had a “world-beating” track and trace app that was capable of identifying at least 25% of people with the virus. Our cup runneth over.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, wasn’t particularly reassured. The fact that the number of infections in Leicester had dropped from 135 to 117 per 100,000 didn’t seem that wonderful when the German model for dropping local lockdowns was 50 per 100,000.
Nor did the government seem to have grasped the economics of a sweatshop local economy that had resulted in so many infections. Mostly, though, Ashworth wanted an apology for the prime minister’s remarks blaming care home workers for the many thousands of excess deaths in care homes.
Here Matt again sold his soul to the devil. It’s not the long hours he has put in that have contributed to his washed-out, hollowed-out demeanour so much as the lies he has been forced to tell that have corroded him from the inside.
Hard to believe, but there was a time when Hancock knew right from wrong and would call it out. He knew Boris was a wrong-’un last summer when he stood against him in the Tory leadership contest, but when he was forced to drop out, Mattbeth let his ambition get the better of him.
Boris had absolutely nothing to apologise for, Matt insisted. It was a total lie to suggest the prime minister had been trying to deflect the blame away from his own mishandling of discharging thousands of untested hospital patients into care homes at the the beginning of the pandemic crisis. The very idea that Boris might want to rewrite history ahead of any future public inquiry was unthinkable.
For Boris was an honourable man. Someone for whom the truth was inviolate. A man who would never dream of promising £350m per week for the NHS and the mass immigration of Turks. A man who would never mislead parliament.
All that the prime minister had been trying to say was that it had been impossible to know just how many asymptomatic patients might have been released into care homes. His words had been deliberately twisted and misunderstood by a Labour party – along with the rest of the country who had understood them only too well – in order to make political capital.
Inside Hancock, a few more blood cells died. Mattbeth doth murder more than sleep. He also murders himself, for his body can no longer accept the daily compromises with the truth and is in full-scale revolt.
In order to survive, the genuine Matt must die. Before long, the health secretary will appear only as a skeleton covered in a stretched parchment of translucent skin.
Because to cover up Boris’s lies, Matt has to be complicit in his own increasingly tenuous grasp of the truth. Because most of us could have sworn that back in early March, Hancock had told the Commons that what made the coronavirus so deadly was the significant rate of transmission from asymptomatic patients. So both he and Boris were now speaking bollocks about not having shifted the blame to care homes.
Other Labour MPs invited Matt to recant. It wasn’t too late. Debbie Abrahams asked Hancock to apologise for suggesting that the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, was too stupid to understand testing figures that didn’t actually exist.
Angela Eagle begged Matt just to say sorry to the care homes. It might be asking too much of Boris to do so, but surely there was enough goodness still in the health secretary for him to manage it?
For a moment, it felt as if Matt was tempted. But he doubled down on there being nothing for which the prime minister had to apologise. Weirdly, though, beneath all the weakness, I still feel there is something good in Matt. I may be a dupe, I don’t think he is beyond redemption. Boris talks of levelling up the country: what Matt needs to do is level with himself.