Matt Hancock and the curious art of the political comeback

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Matt Hancock is seen moving his belongings out of his family home - Greg Brennan
Matt Hancock is seen moving his belongings out of his family home - Greg Brennan

“I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes,” wrote the Cabinet minister to his wife in the wake of his resignation. He was humiliated, his career in tatters, the deaths of many thousands laid at his door. But Winston Churchill, of course, came back.

Can former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock? Binbag of clothes in hand, leaving the marital home, blamed by some for sowing Covid in care homes last year at great cost, he seems at his lowest ebb.

With his wife Clemmie, Churchill could count on one of the most devoted marriages in politics. And even his detractors admired his brilliance. “His faults are known to us,” wrote the Manchester Guardian that day in 1915 when the Dardanelles calamity forced Churchill from office. “But even if they were greater than they are they would be hidden by the occasional flash of his genius.”

Who can say as much for Hancock, now that he has begun to resurface in backbenchers’ WhatsApp groups, testing the waters like a whale diving deep to escape the barbs of its pursuers, finally coming up for air?

Having been forced to resign in disgrace after breaching lockdown rules while carrying on an affair that ended his marriage, shattering his own family and potentially that of his lover, Gina Coladangelo, as well as collapsing his career and slashing his salary, even the notoriously self-confident Hancock may baulk at comparing his own fortunes to those of Britain’s great wartime leader.

But as he begins to pick his way clear from the wreckage of his own political bombsite, he will be reminding himself that he is still only 42 and that he has not just time, but history, on his side. For from sheer bloodymindedness to shameless effrontery, from reinvention to dogged persistence, politics offers a host of paths back for even the most doomed-looking soul.

Outrageous circumstance

“In almost every case you have to have a plan,” says Lord Kenneth Baker, veteran of the Heath, Thatcher and Major cabinets, and witness to a host of career revivals. “Comebacks don’t just happen on their own.”

British Secretary of State for War John Profumo, whose affair led to his resignation from the government - Hulton Archive
British Secretary of State for War John Profumo, whose affair led to his resignation from the government - Hulton Archive

Sometimes, however, the first rule of the political rebound – force majeure – does intervene. Churchill, of course, found himself catapulted back to supreme office by supreme necessity. More recently Peter Mandelson, that arch-Blairite, twice dumped from office, was summoned back for a breathtaking third tilt in cabinet in 2008 as Gordon Brown sought out heavyweights in the wake of the global financial crisis. Brown clearly thought the crisis was serious enough to bury a host of hatchets. But even Mandelson himself seemed astonished: “It was not what I was seeking, not what I was expecting,” he told slack-jawed journalists at the time.

If that was remarkable, Mandelson’s first two comebacks, says Baker, are testament to the more conventional rebound rule – to have a powerful ally. “Blair was such a strong PM,” he says. Unassailable just a year into his first term, the Labour leader could afford to reappoint Mandelson in 1998, just three months after jettisoning him for his £373,000 mortgage irregularities.

Mandelson’s other golden rule was reinvention, on which more later. After it became clear that a new cabinet position was unlikely following the 2001 election, he left to become Britain’s commissioner at the EU.

Sex, lies and videotape

Hancock is hardly the first politician whose career has been derailed by an affair. Cecil Parkinson was forced to resign in October 1983 after it emerged that his former secretary Sara Keays was pregnant with his child. As he continued to shun both his lover and Flora, his baby, he was vilified in public and in the press. Yet crucially he retained support among many in his party. That, says Baker, is where comebacks are often won or lost. “Some are jumping up and down on your grave, some think ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’” After years in the wilderness, Parkinson returned in 1987 as Secretary of State for Energy, taking the Transport brief in 1989. William Hague sealed his rehabilitation by making him Conservative Party chairman in 1997.

As he took up that last appointment, Parkinson may well have looked with some envy at Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, whose affair with his own secretary, Gaynor Regan, was not so costly. Even as Cook’s wife launched a blistering attack on him, revealing that he had conducted a string of affairs, and hit the bottle so hard he passed out, he weathered the bad publicity, staying in office until 2001 when he became Leader of the House. Time proved a great healer. A mere five years after being denounced as a faithless drunk, Cook was hailed as a lone beacon of principle, when he resigned over the invasion of Iraq, a reputation sealed forever by his premature death a couple of years later.

If rule four is resilience, some have taken it to a new level. Some might call it shamelessness. Labour MP Keith Vaz has shown just how far a brass neck can take you. Posing as an industrial washing machine salesman, he was caught in 2016 with two male prostitutes, offering to buy them cocaine. It turned out to be only the latest in a series of scandals which had previously seen Vaz fired by Tony Blair and suspended from the House of Commons. In the end, though, what another Parliamentary colleague described as Vaz’s “Teflon-coating” saw him through in 2016: just a month elapsed between his resignation as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and his appointment to the Justice Select Committee.

Occasionally, too, Vaz has deployed the playbook of perhaps the greatest comeback kid of all, Richard Nixon who, having lost badly in the 1960 US presidential election to JFK knew that a period out of the limelight was required. Nixon’s purdah, lying low, rebuilding bridges, winning back the Republican Party, lasted eight years, but showed that time can bring vindication too, when the “silent majority” he was sure detested hippy culture, swept him to power.

But reinvention is equally as powerful, and here there are three different stripes. The first, and hardest, says Baker, is staying in the same line of politics, hoping to recover lost glories. “Lots of people think they can hang on, and remake what they had, hoping hoping hoping. But it does mean that every time you’re waiting. And when the telephone doesn't ring, and you’ve been overlooked yet again, that eats at the soul.” But it’s not impossible, especially by focusing on single issues. Iain Duncan Smith, after a torrid time as Conservative leader, reinvented himself as a warrior for welfare reform; Andrew Mitchell, of plebgate, did the same for international aid.

The second form of reinvention to try another form of politics entirely. Mandelson had the EU, Lord Carrington, tarnished by the Falklands, came back as NATO secretary general; Paddy Ashdown realised that running Bosnia after the war there, and doing so brilliantly, was better than sticking with the Liberals. Once out of the Westminster goldfish bowl, embracing such new challenges can make life back home seem almost parochial.

The third kind of reinvention, of course, comes outside politics altogether. Think Jeffrey Archer scribbling away both before and after emerging from his prison cell, or Michael Portillo, in his crushed raspberry linen jacket, hopping on another train ride.

And of course there is the other option of just walking away. Memo to Hancock: you don’t have to try to repair your career. Profumo is the embodiment of this, honourably falling on his sword when many thought he needn’t and burnishing a new reputation fighting poverty in the East End. In the end, as Enoch Powell knew, the scandal-hit politician is never alone in failure; he or she merely gets there before their peers. “All political lives... end in failure,” noted Powell. “That is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Some of which may offer succour to Matt Hancock contemplating a comeback. Yet his difficulties are not all behind him. With a public enquiry into Covid to come, he may well be most useful to his party not as its minister but as its scapegoat. In that case, the last rule probably applies: Walk away. “When the door slams shut,” says Baker, “you have to realise it slams shut. You’ve got to go. You’ll be a much happier person if you do.”

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