One of the dangers facing those speaking for this government is accidentally sounding like deeply sarcastic critics of their own administration.
Take Matt Hancock. The heath secretary was on press conference duty on Monday evening, there to tell us to please, for heaven’s sake, just stay at home. Apparently, people let their guard down over Christmas, and we’re seeing the results of that in hospital. As an attack on the last government – by which I mean this government, last month – it was all the more effective for being understated.
Hancock had earlier been at Epsom racecourse, which is being used to administer coronavirus vaccines. Was the venue arranged as an arch comment on last year’s horseracing-health crossover, when the Cheltenham Festival was used to administer coronavirus? It’s impossible to know.
Johnson’s office spent Monday dodging questions about the prime minister’s joyride to the park
The subtext to the press conference was, as it so often is, Boris Johnson. On Sunday the prime minister was spotted cycling in the Olympic Park, seven miles across London from Downing Street. The distance is significant because a pair of women were issued on-the-spot fines last week after travelling five miles to walk next to a reservoir. Hancock had defended the police over that.
Johnson’s office spent Monday dodging questions about the prime minister’s joyride to the park, only commenting that he had noticed it was crowded when he got there and that “he was concerned about if people were following the rules”. Probably that wasn’t intended as sarcasm, but again, who can tell?
All this has left people with questions about the current rules. Where can we walk? The fined women say the police told them their cups of tea had turned their walk into a picnic. If people aren’t allowed to drink coffee inside cafes, and aren’t allowed to walk while carrying coffee, is there a legal way of buying and consuming a drink? What did Hancock think the rules were?
“The most important thing about the rules is that people need to follow them,” the health secretary told us, not entirely helpfully. “I’m delighted that the police are stepping up their enforcement.”
Another try. Was it alright to exercise seven miles from your home? Hancock saw that one coming. “It is OK to go – if you went for a long walk – and ended up seven miles away from home. That is OK, but you should stay local.”
Poor, loyal, Matt Hancock. No Sunday newspaper write-through of the week is complete without an unnamed Downing Street insider being rude about him. And yet out he comes, week after week, finding ways to walk the line of explaining policy while somehow not criticising whatever the prime minister has just said or done to undermine it.
And so it was all the more shocking to see a crack in that dutiful façade, as he continued: “You should not go from one side of the country to another, potentially taking the virus with you.”
Truly, the reign of Dom The Terrible is at an end
Say that again? Some might see that as a statement of the obvious, but it’s the sort of line that would have got a minister expelled from the Cabinet six months ago. It was only last summer that Hancock told the nation that Dominic Cummings had been “entirely right” to personally carry coronavirus from London to Durham. Not since Nikita Khrushchev used his “secret speech” to denounce the crimes of Stalin has there been such an astonishing moment of political liberation. Truly, the reign of Dom The Terrible is at an end.
And the poor reservoir walkers? Within an hour of Hancock defending the cops, Derbyshire police said they’d cancelled the fines. Think of it as yet another bounteous intervention by the prime minister, even if it was yet another unintended one. Sometimes he gives us jabs and there’s a little prick, sometimes he jibs and, well, Matt Hancock puts up with a lot of frankly low abuse.
Too often people mistake Boris Johnson for a genius because he tumbles downhill and hasn’t yet hit anything. But that’s just luck and a matter of perspective. Come back to me once he finally thumps into that last fatal bump. The true political art here is Hancock’s, somehow zigzagging behind his leader wherever he goes. Following Boris is a lot harder than being Boris, and certainly involves doing more work.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe