Matt Hancock needed to resign – so why didn’t Boris Johnson insist on it earlier?

·4-min read
Matt Hancock has been replaced as health secretary by Sajid Javid (Getty)
Matt Hancock has been replaced as health secretary by Sajid Javid (Getty)

Sometimes when you are writing about politics you can feel things moving as you type, and this article from earlier felt like that. I wrote it on Saturday morning, ignoring advice from a friend to wait until 5pm – he thought that Matt Hancock might announce his resignation at the same time as the match between Wales and Denmark kicked off.

Having observed Boris Johnson’s stubbornness on other occasions, I thought it was possible that he might try to postpone the inevitable. He does not like being pushed around by the media, as he sees it, and for Hancock to go now would look as if his government was being dictated to. But, as I wrote it, the argument contradicted itself.

Yes, Johnson had declined to sack Dominic Cummings last year, in slightly similar circumstances. Cummings had broken the government’s own rules, which he had helped set as the prime minister’s chief adviser, and refused to go, insisting that he had only tried to do what was best for his family.

But Johnson’s misplaced loyalty – or his pride – had damaged the government, and the prime minister knew it. He was annoyed with Cummings, and their relationship broke down as a result.

So as I wrote the article, the idea that the prime minister would defy not just the media but public opinion for any length of time became increasingly hard to argue; and by the time I got to the end of it, I was writing about how it really was not in Johnson’s interest for Hancock to stay on, and I realised that the health secretary could resign at any moment. It is one of the hazards of being a weekend columnist that Saturday night is the night for resigning, with the Sunday newspaper front pages about to hit Twitter.

Now that Hancock has resigned, it tells us something different about the prime minister’s character. He can be obstinate; but usually, when he is on the wrong side of public opinion – as opposed to Twitter opinion – he gets himself back on the right side. Although that can take time, as in the case of the rather one-sided contest with Marcus Rashford over free school meals.

What we can see, though, is that Johnson doesn’t like sacking people. He would rather put them in an impossible position and wait for them to draw their own conclusions. That is what he did to Sajid Javid, or rather, what he allowed Cummings to do to Javid, when he and Cummings decided that they needed a new chancellor (Javid has now returned to the Cabinet as health secretary). Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, has just been on the radio accusing the prime minister of failing to show leadership by just sacking Hancock on Friday, and he has a point.

Hancock’s situation was untenable. Indeed, Hancock put it extremely well himself: “Those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them, and that’s why I’ve got to resign.” It is nothing to do with his private life; it is a simple matter of not having one rule for us and another for them. But Johnson obviously didn’t want to say that: he just waited for Hancock to reach that conclusion himself.

It took time, because at a personal level it is a difficult decision. Hancock is an ambitious person. It was only two years ago that he thought he could be prime minister, although he did not get far in the Tory leadership election. Now he has to come to terms with what is probably the end of his political career – as well as his marriage.

Indeed, someone speaking for the prime minister to Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, has been “stressing it was Hancock’s decision to go; he wasn’t pushed out by prime minister” – as if this were a good thing. It may reassure other ministers, but Ashworth’s point still stands: that Johnson should have shown leadership and told Hancock he had to go.

Still, the rest of what I wrote is still applicable. I think Johnson always intended to move Hancock at the next reshuffle. Although Cummings failed to get rid of Hancock – Hancock really did do that all by himself – the picture painted by Cummings of the dysfunctionality at the heart of government suggested that Johnson did not have a huge amount of personal respect for his health secretary. So when the public inquiry does find the government’s coronavirus response to have been wanting, the prime minister will do what many do when something goes wrong, and blame the person who left months ago.

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