Picture credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Just another minister

Matt Hancock is no master-deceiver, just an average embarrassment

A few hours into Matt Hancock’s second round of evidence to the Covid Inquiry, we learned that Alistair Darling had died. For those who had dealt with him over the years, it was a moment of profound sadness. Many of us had our own stories of private kindness. He was a man of integrity, modesty and good humour.

And so as Hancock went on, the mind drifted to a different crisis, and another minister suddenly faced with issues he could never have imagined. 

Darling, like Hancock, had been forced to react on the fly. Like Hancock he had faced poisonous briefings from his own side. Unlike Hancock, his crime was to be too honest. He had observed in 2008 that the world faced economic disaster, an act of frankness for which Gordon Brown’s aides unleashed, he later recalled, “the forces of hell”. 

Darling had the satisfaction of being vindicated by events. Brown might have been furious at the mention of the coming crisis, but it would ultimately give him his greatest moments in office. Darling, meanwhile, handled himself with characteristic dignity.

Back with more modern disasters, not even Nadine Dorries thinks that Covid was Boris Johnson’s finest hour. Nor will anyone ever accuse Hancock of behaving with dignity. Since he was forced to resign, he has wandered from podcast studio to reality TV set, explaining that his only crime was to fall in love. He has also tried to get the idea going that he was The Man Who Saw Covid Coming, the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the lockdown”.

The problem is that no one believes him. Those who hate the government from the left blame him for everything from test-and-trace spending to PPE shortages to VIP lanes to care home crises. Those who hate the government from the right — a category that includes many Conservative MPs — have convinced themselves that were it not for Hancock, lockdown would never have happened at all, and the whole nation would have spent the weekend in bed with a cough and then got back to work on Monday morning. 

Assailed by so much loathing, Hancock has become a man burdened with a truth that only he understands and which he feels he must share with the world. He is the Ancient Mariner stoppething one of three to warn about the dangers of mixing crossbows with seafowl. He is Ross from Friends explaining that he and Rachel had, in fact, very clearly been On A Break.

His complaint is multi-layered. In part, it’s that there was “an unhealthy toxic culture” in Johnson’s Downing Street. Several times he told us that he was a “team player,” in a voice full of sadness at the team the prime minister had led. Sadly there was no time to discuss the weeks in 2019 that Hancock spent telling anyone who would listen that Johnson would be terrific. 

But the big claim was that he had wanted a lockdown far earlier than anyone else, and had urged this course in private. If only he’d been heeded, he told us, many lives would have been saved.

Hugo Keith, the inquiry counsel, treated all of this with scepticism. In particular, he was offended by Hancock’s “Pandemic Diaries”, the self-serving account of the crisis that Hancock published last year. He opened the day by asking Hancock to confirm that they weren’t in fact, a diary. From then on, whenever Keith referred to the book, he managed, somehow, to put the word “diary” inside quote marks. When he wanted to rile Hancock, he referred to “the Diaries, so-called”. 

But this was only the start of his contempt for the mores of modern publishing. Half an hour in, he took on Hancock’s own claims about his book. “Meticulously pieced together,” he read, his eyebrows on the ceiling. This was below the belt. If we’re going to start holding authors to account for their book blurbs, where will it end? “Lord Archer, I put it to you that you are, at best, a journeyman storyteller.”  

The problem for Hancock is that his approach to politics turns out to have been quite similar to his approach to publishing. Sure, he told people things that weren’t, you know, completely accurate. But everyone knows that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in a Cabinet submission, right?

His department had produced an action plan early in the pandemic, but it didn’t contain much in the way of action, he conceded. “Obviously if I went back and rewrote it now, it would be completely different.” And perhaps, when the paperback of his book comes out, it will be.

There were hours more to go. Why had he responded with a kisses emoji when it was suggested he’d met his testing target through “creative accounting”? Why had he told Johnson he’d locked down care homes early? “It depends on how you define ‘lock down’.”

Towards the end of the day, Keith got to Hancock’s claim to have thrown a “protective ring”, around care homes, one of the unhappier pieces of Covid rhetoric. Hancock by now looked punch drunk, weary. He attempted a brief explanation, and then gave up. 

In the end, the Hancock we got wasn’t the master-deceiver that his many detractors claim. He was just another minister, trying to suck up to his boss, trying to avoid blame, trying to look good on TV, trying to shag one of his aides. We can’t, as a country, be lucky all the time.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover