There’s a Matt for That

Nurturing the flame of the candle of hope


Poor Matt Hancock. He just wants to be one of the gang.

One way of dividing politicians is between those who were probably bullied at school and those who were probably bullies. Boris Johnson is easily imagined debagging a squitty trill-bug (or whatever they called first years at Eton – please don’t feel the need to get in touch if you happen to know). Dominic Cummings meanwhile has the air of a man with a lot of suppressed anger to work out over experiences he had between the ages of eight and 46.

Hancock, one fears, was not interesting enough to be either bullied or bully. In possibly the saddest paragraph of all the paragraphs published over the weekend, an “ally” of Hancock’s told the Mail on Sunday: “No one has done more to bend over backwards and ingratiate themselves with the Vote Leave guys than Matt, and they still hate him.”

This week brought a chance for Hancock to bend over in a different direction to ingratiate himself

This is true. Johnson’s leadership campaign was marked by a form of political sadism, where everyone who had ever criticised Johnson (everyone, basically) but now wanted to endorse him was made to go through the humiliation of having to obsequiously defend him in a broadcast interview which Johnson himself had turned down. Through the studios they trudged, justifying behaviour and writing that they privately abhorred, trying to think of the ministerial post on the other side.

But of all the Tories who ate their own words and said how good they tasted, no one did it with the enthusiasm of Hancock. He went back for seconds and thirds. Had he said that a no-deal Brexit wasn’t a policy option? He had meant that it was the only policy option! When he’d said “fuck fuck business,” he’d meant “fuck fuck fuck business”! Or more! Or less! He’d say anything they needed him to. Just let him be in the gang.

And yet, somehow, the Vote Leave guys never respected him. Indeed, rumours that he was on the point of being sacked have swirled for most of the year.

Now, with regime change in Downing Street, this week brought a chance for Hancock to bend over in a different direction to ingratiate himself. With the prime minister isolating, was someone needed to front a press conference? Hancock to the rescue! No job too small, no announcement too big. The Cabinet’s man with a van. Or, this time, a Van-Tam.

Hancock and Jonathan Van-Tam were joined by Dr Susan Hopkins, who talked us through a video about how lateral flow tests worked, in a segment oddly evocative of Tomorrow’s World. As she finished, you expected her to announce that we’d be going back to the studio, where Judith was going to tell us how in the future we’d be able to install one app to tell us whether we’d been within two metres of a health secretary, and another to feed back on the experience.

The future is now

Hancock had good news for us: new “Megalabs” to increase virus testing capacity, new deals to get vaccines as they came on-stream, and Royal Mail working seven days a week to help move tests around the country. He thanked “posties” for the last one, in his best “talking to tradesmen” voice.

And then it was time for the serious bit. “While there’s much uncertainty, we can see the candle of hope,” he said, with the earnest authority of an Athena poster in your big sister’s bedroom. “And we must do all we can to nurture its flame.”

Idly trying to nurture a candle flame in my teenage years, I nearly burned my parents’ house down, so my main tip here would be to keep the candle of hope well away from the curtains of optimism, and have a fire extinguisher of dreams to hand. Others may be able to offer their own lessons.

When the time came for questions, Hancock kept referring to Van-Tam as “JVT”. Why? Is “Jonathan” hard to say? “Professor Van-Tam”? No. It’s nicknames. Cummings was big on nicknames. Johnson also refers to Van-Tam as “JVT”, or did when he last appeared. Van-Tam had the decency not to reply in kind and refer to the Health Secretary by any of his nicknames. It’s a family press conference, after all.

The danger for Hancock is that he may be out of step. The Big Boys Gang is now run by women. How do they feel about nicknames? Possibly less warmly. Could they prefer initials? MH had better watch his step and be ready, always ready to please. Even with all this change, there is an interesting consistency to how they feel about Hancock: the weekend papers were full of reports he might be sacked.

Poor Matt Hancock.

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