“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” So read the famous plaque on President Reagan’s desk in the Oval Office. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Which is to say, when you’ve singularly and catastrophically cocked everything up, it is crucially important that you get the credit for whatever thing can be found that might not have gone wrong.
And so we witness the joyous spectacle of Matt Hancock giving a speech at a vaccine research centre in Oxford – billed in advance (by Hancock himself) as a “big” speech, which was just as well, as you absolutely wouldn’t have known otherwise.
Vaccines are great, he explained. Edward Jenner invented them. Vaccines have done more than anything to alleviate human misery. Without vaccines we’d still have smallpox and measles. A trained chimp could have stood there and said these words. And a trained chimp would have been entitled to roughly the same amount of credit for the development of a Covid-19 vaccine as Hancock, but would certainly have done a more deft job of trying to claim it for himself.
Various questions swirl around Hancock at the moment, and they do not smell good. Did he, for example, tell the cabinet last March that the people being removed from hospitals and placed in care homes had been tested for Covid, when they actually hadn’t? This is what Dominic Cummings accused him of during last week’s select committee appearance. A blatant lie, covering up a bit of eye-popping incompetence that had led to thousands of deaths. It is hard to think of a more serious allegation levelled at a senior politician in the last half-century.
Hancock was asked directly about this, and here is his answer, in full: “I think the best approach is to take responsibility for all things that have happened, and, as health secretary, I do that for all the decisions I have been responsible for.
“The vaccine programme is an incredibly important programme that we’ve learned the lessons from in the same way that we’ve learned the lessons throughout the crisis – lessons for how best to protect people – and we’ve updated the rules all the way through, and we’ve been very open about that.
“That’s a very important part about how you handle an unprecedented situation.”
It’s not what you’d call a resounding “no”, is it? If you’d been wrongly accused of accidentally causing the deaths of a very large number of elderly people and then effectively covering it up, you might imagine yourself issuing a rather firmer denial than one sentence of complete waffle followed by a segue on to a different subject altogether.
Then there’s the curious fact that Hancock has been found by an independent investigation to have acted in breach of the ministerial code, after his sister’s company signed various large contracts with the NHS. But he doesn’t need to resign, apparently, because he didn’t know about it, even though he owns 20 per cent of the company himself.
There is, it turns out, truly no limit to what a man can get away with, as long as he can find something for which to claim the credit.