Hancock of a thousand faces

Not another Matt Hancock reinvention


Poor Matt Hancock. Once he dreamed of being a leader at a time of national crisis. Then he got his wish. But he had hoped he would be a twenty-first century Churchill, taking the tide of affairs at the flood and being swept to greatness. Instead he turned out to be, well, Matt Hancock.

The former Health Secretary, current MP and soon-to-be Pub Quiz Answer was giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry on Tuesday. Like the pandemic itself, the inquiry is going to be very boring and will seem like it’s gone on for ever. But at least this time some lawyers will get rich. With a bit of luck, it will also destroy some political careers. This is of course a race against time, as the Conservatives are bent on destroying themselves first. 

Hancock, though, is one step ahead, having blown his own career up two years ago with his lockdown office fumble. He’s now fighting for redemption. He had come before the inquiry to let us know how lucky we had all been to have him. 

This is at least the third Hancock relaunch

This is at least the third Hancock relaunch. There was his appearance being tortured in the celebrity jungle, there was his decision to hand all his WhatsApps to a journalist famous for stitching people up, who then stitched him up. Neither of those was what we might call an unqualified success, but this time it was all going to be different. 

We began with his career before he went to the Department of Health. “I was effectively the Number Two in the Cabinet Office,” he said. This was indeed more or less the expression that many of his colleagues used at the time.

Hancock always has the air of a struggling actor cast as “Unnamed Health Secretary” in a Channel Five daytime drama. He’s acting his heart out, but there isn’t much to work with. “As Secretary of State I felt keenly the responsibilities,” he said earnestly. “I knew that when things go wrong, things move quickly.”

He felt people’s pain. “I am profoundly sorry for the impact that it had, I’m profoundly sorry for each death that has occurred,” he emoted. “And I also understand why, for some, it will be hard to take that apology from me. But it is honest and heartfelt, and I’m not very good at talking about my emotions and how I feel. But that is honest and true.”

He had now, he said, realised why the government had struggled to cope with the pandemic. You might have thought he’d have talked about this in his written-after-the-fact “Diary”, but it seems to have been a recent realisation. The problem, he said, was that while Britain had done a lot of planning for what to do with people’s bodies after they were killed by a pandemic, it had given less thought to how they might be stopped from catching a killer disease in the first place. If true, this certainly does seem an oversight.

There was a certain amount of evidence that Hancock had been preparing for his session. Some of his answers were carefully lawyerly: “I do not recall being aware of that, no” and “That’s what I understand too from reading these papers, yes.”

Hugo Keith, the inquiry counsel, was interested in why the government hadn’t drawn the right lessons from a planning exercise held several years before the pandemic. Might everyone have been a bit distracted in the years 2016-2019? He pointed to the committees that hadn’t met, the work that had been allowed to run overdue.

“You have to make sure that those resources are targeted at the threats that you face,” Hancock said. “And one of those risks was a disorganised Brexit.” If this inquiry is going to take in our departure from the European Union as well, it truly will never end. Perhaps they can finish off the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry — still technically incomplete — while they’re at it. 

Anyway, Hancock said, there were ways in which preparations for a no-deal Brexit had been helpful. By the start of 2020, British officials had spent more time than their foreign counterparts thinking about how the country would respond in the event of a catastrophic economic disaster and the closing of borders. In effect, the one bit of disaster planning the government had done was for the disaster the government was planning to impose on us. It’s a triumph of a sort.

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