Everyone in Westminster had known for years that it was dangerous to stand between Matt Hancock and a camera. We just hadn’t realised that one of the risks was getting your bottom groped.
The former Health Secretary was well known for his enthusiasm for being filmed, whether it was going through his vigorous exercise regime, playing cricket, or announcing another rise in Covid infections. And anyone who has watched Hancock defend Boris Johnson at a press conference knows that he’s got plenty of experience of being filmed while engaged in a sordid and degrading act.
So the surprise arguably isn’t that there was a camera in his office but that there was only one. Still, a camera there was, and on Monday members of parliament were very upset about it.
Knowing MPs, the Sketch half expected that, having learned Hancock had a camera in his office, they now all wanted one. They are not, as a class, self-effacing.
But it turned out Hancock’s exposure had given them pause for thought. What if they were all being filmed? What other secrets might shortly appear on the front page of The Sun?
Peter Bone had asked Michael Gove, who as Cabinet Office Minister is responsible for this sort of thing, to come and explain what was going on. Gove was however unavailable, and so we got Julia Lopez instead. She explained that there wasn’t very much that she could explain. The Department of Health had launched an investigation into how Hancock had come to be filmed and how the video had come to be leaked. “Robust safeguards” were in place, and that was all she could tell us.
It was not an answer that satisfied. Bone said the idea that there were cameras in people’s offices was “of the utmost concern”. Jacob Young said that people in the Health Secretary’s office “should have been able to have the frankest of conversations with him regarding the nation’s health without fear of being recorded”, which made it sound like the entire country was suffering from an embarrassing rash. Debbie Abrahams said it was “nothing short of Big Brother”. Alec Shelbrooke wanted to know if this camera was also responsible for the leak of details about the second lockdown. We may yet be able to pin every mystery of the last two years to Matt Hancock’s Sex Door.
Lopez seemed less troubled by the possibility that Hancock may, in some respects, have been an idiot
Jamie Stone said that the camera “must surely to goodness have been pretty covert”. Lopez explained that it really wasn’t, being as how it stuck out of the ceiling, looking for all the world like a camera. Chris Bryant was astonished. “In other words,” he said. “the secretary of state knew it was there, yet we have all seen the video. If that is true, he must be the stupidest man on earth.” Bryant said this in a way that suggested it was implausible: “It blows my mind, this idea.”
Lopez seemed less troubled by the possibility that Hancock may, in some respects, have been an idiot. “I am sorry that the honourable gentleman’s mind is blown,” she replied. The Sketch is beginning to have high hopes for her.
Labour MPs were mainly interested in another aspect of this, the question of how ministers use their private email accounts. Was Boris Johnson using private internet identities to do government business? This should be fairly straightforward to answer: just check whether @ClassicalMelonzLover50BC tried to place an order for 200 ventilators last March.
Alan Brown for the SNP said the leak investigation had to answer a question: “Who benefited from the release of the footage?”
Which brings us to the new Health Secretary. Fresh from (one imagines) ordering that his new office be deep-cleaned and all the furniture burned, Sajid Javid was in parliament to talk about the vaccination programme.
He was greeted by big Tory cheers, notably louder than the muted ones that came when he praised his predecessor. Javid is liked by colleagues, and many Conservatives suspect Hancock of having made the crisis seem worse than it was in order to keep the nation locked down. Quite how or why was never really explained.
Javid began with a moment of candour, saying how much he’d hated being on the backbenches during the crisis. He offered fresh assurances that the government was aiming for a 19 July end to all restrictions: “The start of an exciting new journey for our country.” His message wasn’t all that different from Hancock’s but he was a fresh face delivering it.
Mark Harper, leader of the Tory Lockdown Sceptics, offered Javid a compliment that sounded very much like a dig at Hancock: “He’s a man of real integrity, and that’s an essential quality in a health secretary at a time like this.”
He asked Javid to rule out lockdowns or restrictions this winter. And while Javid thanked him for his kind words, he declined to do so. As he showed when he came out against Brexit in 2016, Javid has some buccaneering instincts, but he’s also a careful man. Harper and the sceptics may yet be in for a disappointment.
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