Love Island has begun – and so have the Matt Hancock memes. Perhaps the famously optimistic former health secretary – “full of beans” as Boris Johnson said only a week ago – will see this as the first step in his political rehabilitation. He’s now a figure of fun as well as fury.
“Friends” of Matt Hancock have been briefing the media on his comeback plans, saying that while he plans to lie low for a bit, he hopes “to re-emerge at some point. It is going to be a long way back – he knows that – but he is going to try.”
It’s incredible he wants to try really. Most people caught on camera smooching with a lover and massaging her buttocks might be tempted to leave the country. But then that’s not really an option when the video has been beamed around the world.
So how easy will a Hancock revival be?
Many disgraced MPs never manage it. There was no way back – neither long nor short – for Labour titan and former cabinet minister Stephen Byers, after he was caught describing himself as a “cab for hire”, offering his parliamentary services to undercover journalists.
A little more promising is the fate of Mark Oaten, once a Liberal Democrat bigwig. He quit his party’s front bench after the News of the World revealed he’d hired a male sex worker. The allegations against him make Hancock’s kiss distinctly PG. But then the former health secretary, no doubt, has rather loftier ambitions than Oaten’s current perch as head of the International Fur Trade Federation.
But still, plenty of MPs facing the final curtain do manage a second act.
One Conservative former minister who quit in not dissimilar circumstances told me: “The key is not to resign as an MP. If you don’t, there is always a chance of coming back. He’s young – only 42 – so plenty of time to rehabilitate himself if he’s prepared to play a long game. The key is what does he do while he’s on the backbenches?”
Liam Fox resigned as defence secretary in 2011 after allegations about his working relationship with his friend and adviser Adam Werritty, but returned to the cabinet under Theresa May.
Those with longer memories will recall the rehabilitation of Thatcher ally Cecil Parkinson. He quit as trade and industry secretary in the 1980s, when it emerged his former secretary Sara Keays was pregnant with his child. In those days, sex really was a scandal. Nevertheless, though, he said he was “determined to remove disgraced from the title of disgraced former cabinet minister, which I’m so often labelled”. So he returned as energy secretary and then transport secretary, before serving in the Lords for decades.
And then there’s the ultimate political Lazarus: the prime minister himself. Fifteen years after Boris Johnson was sacked by Conservative leader Michael Howard for lying over an affair, he was installed as prime minister.
When Johnson wrote to Hancock at the weekend, accepting his resignation, he signed off: “Your contribution to public service is far from over.”
That might give the former health secretary hope. But if he’s banking on a job offer from the prime minister any time soon, he’d be frankly deluded. Most Tory MPs know Johnson’s word is not his bond.
Moreover, if the PM’s support can’t be guaranteed, backing from his colleagues is thin on the ground too. It’s striking how friendless Hancock was in Westminster in those final days. Ringing round MPs to see if anyone would come and support him on my Times Radio show on Friday, not a soul answered in the affirmative.
It’s true that Johnson, too, is more of a political loner than many realise. But his comeback was built on charisma, intelligence and sheer chutzpah. Full of beans Hancock may be, but several MPs speak of an arrogance that might militate against a rapid return.
And then there’s the small matter of his constituents. One Tory aide scoffed at the notion of a Hancock redux. “He’s betrayed his country as well as his wife; he’s been a pompous a*** inflicting regulations on us whilst gadding around snogging at work,” they told me.
The public might be able to forgive a sex scandal – we’re less moralistic than we were – but the hypocrisy charge is far harder to shake off.
So if he wants redemption, he’ll have to do years of penance on the backbenches, before facing voters at the next election.
Having had his personal passions globally recognised, he’ll have to find some political passions, causes and campaigns to keep him busy and motivated. That could be a struggle, as one former colleague reflected: “I’m not sure what Matt is passionate about other than his career.”
Well, now he has time to find out. That, and to cultivate the next leader upon whom he’s dependent for a job. Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak should no doubt expect a call.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm