Matt Hancock’s job is far from safe

·3-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Will Matt Hancock go? Here’s the case for the prosecution. What is certain is that he did break social distancing guidelines when snogging his aide, Gina Coladangelo, in his office in the middle of the afternoon, as caught on CCTV and subsequently leaked. (On Friday night the Sun released a video, if there was any remaining doubt). At the time guidance ordered people to stay at least 2 meters away from those they weren’t living with.

That of course smacks of hypocrisy, because a) Hancock said last year that Government science advisor Neil Ferguson, who was found to have breached the rules over an affair, took the “right decision to resign”, and b) he’s the health secretary and we are in the middle of a pandemic. The upshot is that whatever authority he had to order people to stay apart has gone. That will be a problem if he has to order us to accept restrictions once again.

A second problem will come if it transpires that Hancock has breached ministerial code by not declaring a conflict of interest. Before he hired Coladangelo they were longtime friends, and her role at DHSC involved overseeing Hancock’s performance. A department of health spokesperson said the appointment was made in the usual way and followed correct procedure.

No. 10 might be backing him for now, but whether Hancock stays depends on how far Boris Johnson is prepared to tolerate a health secretary who was vastly weakened authority - which is to say an essentially useless one in a pandemic. It will also depend on how far this corrodes public trust in the government as a whole - and whether it starts to affect the polls. YouGov survey found 49 percent of voters believe the health secretary should resign, with 25 per cent backing him.

Hancock is currently protected by two things. One, the idea that this is not the moment for a novice health secretary. And two, that Johnson would not be able to fire him without drawing damaging levels of attention to his own history of indiscretions.

And that will be protective only up to a point. Clearly, Johnson can’t fire Hancock for omitting to declare a conflict of interest over an alleged affair - he himself faces similar claims over an alleged affair with Jennifer Arcuri. But Johnson could fire him for simply breaching Covid rules without inviting charges of hypocrisy (the PM has not been himself accused of bending them).

What is true is that Hancock is fighting for his political life right now. He’ll be enduring a weekend of anger and criticism. Even his apology has drawn criticism for failing to mention his wife.

Whether Johnson be pushed to the point of firing him probably depends - as so many things - on the progress of the virus. Any time Hancock attempts to enforce lockdown measures, (and any time people resist them), attention will be drawn back to this story. Another lockdown would likely be disastrous for Hancock. But as things stand it is a mere three weeks until ‘freedom day’. Hancock might just hang on.

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