One of the tabloid-tastic details of The Sun’s jaw-dropping scoop on Matt Hancock was that “the office where the tryst happened is where Mr Hancock famously hangs his Damien Hirst portrait of the Queen”.
He committed adultery in front of Her Majesty, has the man no shame? Or did he dangle a facemask over the painting to spare her eyes? As one parliamentary source put it to me [in a phrase that now adorns LadBible, of all places]: “Matt Hancock’s new guidance: Hands. Face. A**e.”
The Queen of course namechecked Hancock herself this week, during that audience with Boris Johnson, pitying “the poor man” for his workload in the pandemic. One can only imagine how arched the Royal eyebrow will be when a courtier (or the PM) dares inform her of the news about his latest troubles.
So, yes, the jokes have taken off and the health secretary’s clinch has inevitably become a meme. Within minutes, his reputation was hung, drawn and slaughtered and it can only get worse in coming days. The forbidden snog has the potential to become a new Barnard Castle moment, which itself spawned every possible quip about eye tests.
No.10 will be hoping that the ridicule is where this ends, and that it somehow reduces the seriousness of the breach of Covid rules. Johnson himself knows all too well that being a figure of fun on ‘Have I Got News For You’ is hardly career-ending.
For satire to bite it has to carry an edge of cold anger, rather than offer just titillating laughs. The Thick Of It was superb, but Armando Iannucci had to cancel it when he saw politicians revelling in it, rather than being stung by it. The idea of a minister who banned grandparents from hugging their grandchildren then hugging his mistress is beyond parody.
Still, Cummings’ case showed that sheer fury can accompany mockery. Lots and lots of Tory MPs were emailed by constituents who didn’t find it funny at all that the PM’s former chief adviser had treated strict lockdown rules like the Pirates of the Caribbean code (“more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules”).
Hancock has a rhinoceros-like political hide. He has proved in many ways he’s beyond embarrassment, just as his boss has proved he’s often beyond shame. Opposing prorogation of parliament only to back the idea later, brazening out the PM’s “hopeless Hancock” description, defending his claim that he threw a “protective ring” around care homes, all prove that.
Hancock’s statement today – “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry” – was a masterclass in chutzpah masquerading as contrition. It felt very much like he knew Johnson could never sack any minister over an affair, and that vaccination success was all the public have focused on anyway.
Sorry used to be the hardest word for this government, but this was an apology without action. With the public and businesses suffering from lockdown fatigue, that may have consequences. Any pub that now lets people order at the bar, any shop that allows face masks to be ditched, any nightclub that illicitly opens to snogging couples, may now just say sorry. Then keep on keeping on.
The real difficulty for Hancock will be the one that dogs “beleaguered” ministers through history: the clamour around this affair may make it impossible for him to do his day job.
Whenever he is next putting out a good news story about the vaccine progress, or even trying to keep in place some remaining restrictions, he will face a barrage of questions. Did he share an illegal hotel room stay with ‘another household’ at any point in the past year? Did he breach travel rules to meet that household? Did he have a relationship he failed to declare when hiring her?
A large chunk of the public may be unfazed, and un-outraged, by all this. The danger of the jokes is that they obscure perhaps the bigger failings of the health secretary, not least his Test and Trace service.
One irony of the Sun story is that the truly damning National Audit Office report into Dido Harding’s organisation was rapidly knocked off the headlines. Ministers in the Lords face questions on Monday about that report, and surely Hancock will face an Urgent Commons Question on it too.
In his latest blog, Cummings tried to twist the knife with yet more revelations about testing and tracing failures last year. And for all his tortuous stream-of-consciousness approach (I mean, who would want to read that stuff, rather than a short set of bullet points?), he had some important new revelations.
We learned that Cummings rightly warned that “quarantine must happen fast” and that it should be monitored. He correctly worked out that testing and even tracing was pointless unless people were actually isolating. He also stressed that testing asymptomatic cases was even more valuable than testing those with symptoms.
He also revealed a new Johnson message that confirmed these concerns, but left them unresolved: “The whole track and trace thing feels like whistling in the dark. Legions of imaginary clouseaus and no plan to hire them...And above all no idea how to get new cases down to a manageable level or how long it will take”.
In PMQs next week, Keir Starmer must surely quote Johnson’s own verdict that the lack of a viable test and trace system meant the “uk may have secured double distinction of being the European country w the most fatalities and the biggest economic hit”. Expect that to appear on every Labour leaflet and poster ahead of the next election.
The PM looks like he wants to brazen out the Hancock row as much as Hancock himself. He will try to make a virtue out of his dogged loyalty to his ministers and say “vaccines, vaccines, vaccines” a lot. Yet today’s No.10 stonewalling of Lobby journalists’ questions laid bare a contempt for not just the media but for the public.
That felt like the bullishness of a government with a big polling lead, but it also felt like the complacency of a party that has been in power so long that it thinks the normal rules really don’t apply to it. They may be right for now, but in the long run, that way lies ruin.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.