Hancock’s horrendous revelations

Journalists investigating the leaks at severe risk of blindness and facemelting


Christian Wakeford edged along the opposition front bench, a pile of fake daffodils in his cupped hands. His role was to ensure that every other Labour MP had a flower on their lapel, as a symbol of their affection for Wales on St David’s Day. There are jobs in politics that are unglamorous but vital.

Sometimes obscure, subject to multiple interpretations, and full of Messianic overtones

In journalism, too. In a bunker somewhere in London, a crack team of Telegraph journalists has spent weeks combing through Matt Hancock’s old WhatsApp messages, trying to establish whether he was lying to Mrs Hancock when he claimed not to have finished off the chicken pie that she left in the fridge, and where different members of the Cabinet had got up to in Succession when the pandemic hit. We can only hope that the people reading Hancock’s messages with his special adviser-turned-very-special-lady, Gina Coladangelo, are working in shifts — to limit their exposure to radioactive smut.

There certainly are a lot of WhatsApps. “Three times as many words as the King James Bible contains,” the Telegraph announced. The Bible is of course the standard journalistic unit of measurement for something containing a lot of words, although I suspect Hancock’s preferred translation would be the Good News. Sometimes obscure, subject to multiple interpretations and full of Messianic overtones, there’s a danger that people will see what they want to in Hancock’s WhatsApps.

Revelations so far include the discovery that Boris Johnson tended to get the wrong end of some quite important sticks when reading news stories, after which aides would try, patiently but not always successfully, to explain to him how numbers worked. If six months into the crisis, the then prime minister was getting his Covid data from newspapers, that explains quite a lot. Reading Dominic Cummings launching into an explanation of per centages, any surge of sympathy is overwhelmed by the thought that this pair deserved each other.

In the House of Commons, we were all waiting to see if the former Health Secretary would turn up for the urgent question that the Speaker had granted Labour. First we got a fairly insipid exchange between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer. The Labour leader reported that families in Poland are on course to become richer than those in Britain. “If the Tories limp on in government, we are going to see a generation of young people learning to say ‘auf wiedersehen, pet’ in Polish, aren’t we?” he asked.

As jokes go, this was a misjudgement on a par with Hancock’s decision to hand 100,000 sensitive WhatsApps to a famously ruthless journalist who had spent the previous two years attacking him in print. We at The Critic yield to no one when it comes to ancient cultural reference points, but if your gag depends on people remembering the premise of a show that aired four decades ago, you should probably put it out of its misery.

In any case, Starmer’s successes in the past year have come in large part from exploiting the gap between whoever was prime minister that week and their MPs. On Wednesday the Conservatives were as one in support of Sunak, still riding high on his Brexit deal.

After PMQs, it was on to the Urgent Hancock Question

Probably the best line came from the SNP’s Stephen Flynn, who is very much enjoying leading a party that unashamedly thinks Brexit is a mistake. Labour MPs all think this too, of course, but they have decided to pretend that they don’t. Flynn asked about Sunak’s praise of single market membership, then compared it with a comment from Starmer that rejoining wouldn’t help the UK economy. “Does it hurt the prime minister to know that the Labour party believes in Brexit more than he does?” he asked, to the delight of his own side and the evident discomfort of pretty much everyone else.

After PMQs, it was on to the Urgent Hancock Question. The man himself hadn’t turned up, coward that he is. Helen Whately, a junior health minister, had been sent out to bat for the government. She didn’t look terribly happy about it. Increasingly exasperated, she repeatedly explained the messages so far reported gave a partial picture, missing details from meetings that were taking place at the same time: there had simply not been the capacity for ministers to do everything they had wanted to do.

She was made to seem more reasonable by the level of Labour’s furious outrage. There’s surely much to criticise in the government’s pandemic response, especially around the issue of the release of the elderly into care homes, but it’s not clear how much the latest revelations add.

Whately had been given a thankless task: defending the actions of Hancock, who had created the problem by handing over all the WhatsApps as part of an effort to write a self-justifying memoir, then disappeared rather than stand up for himself. Still, there are jobs like that in politics: unglamorous, yet vital — to your own side, at least.

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