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Paul Vallely: Hancock’s fall is a lesson for the PM

02 July 2021

The now former Health Secretary crossed a line, says Paul Vallely


Matt Hancock with his adviser, Gina Coladangelo, in May

Matt Hancock with his adviser, Gina Coladangelo, in May

HAS Boris Johnson learned the lesson of what really forced the departure of Matthew Hancock from the Cabinet? The Prime Minister’s first instinct when scandal looms is to brazen it out. This has worked well enough previously. Dominic Cummings was not sacked after his risible Barnard Castle eye-test (News, 29 May 2020). Nor was Robert Jenrick, when he made a planning decision which saved a Tory donor up to £50 million in tax. Nor was Priti Patel, after the government standards watchdog found her guilty of bullying in three departments.

Nor was there any penalty paid by Mr Johnson himself after his attempt to get Tory donors to pay for the gold wallpaper that his wife ordered for their Downing Street flat. The only admonition came from the popular press, which dubbed her “Carrie Antoinette”. Small wonder that opposition politicians have asked what exactly you have to do to get sacked from this Government.

Whether or not Mr Hancock was sacked is an open question. First, the Prime Minister publicly backed him. Then, he implied that he had given the Health Secretary the push. Then he reverted to the opposite line. The speed of his about-turns was breathtaking, even for Boris.

So, why did Mr Hancock go when his breach of Covid guidelines was far less serious than that of Mr Cummings? In both cases, Conservative MPs’ postbags were filled with outraged complaints from constituents. The PM expended a significant amount of political goodwill when he refused to sack Mr Cummings. Tory backbenchers made it clear that a repeat was not on the cards. They were the real decision-makers here.

Lying is a feature of populist politics. Researchers at the University of Bristol suggest that many voters do not object to factual inaccuracy, so long as there is an authentic alignment between the politician’s public and private persona. Shamelessness is populism’s debased form of authenticity. Research in the United States from the Trump era indicates that voters who feel excluded from the political system are perfectly happy to accept lies from a politician who presents himself as their champion against the “Establishment” or “elite” that excludes them.

What does that tell us? Perhaps that Conservative backbenchers and activists don’t care who pays for Carrie’s curtains, so long as it isn’t them. They are not bothered by Mr Jenrick’s cosy chumocracy, because looking after your own is what they expect their fellow party members to do. And, if Ms Patel is a bully, she is at least putting the immigrants and the naysayers in their place and taking back control. As President Roosevelt said of one South American dictator: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

The Nolan Principles of public life call for selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. All very desirable, no doubt. But politicians, it seems, can nowadays lamentably get away with a cavalier approach to all that, and a lack of propriety and moral standards, so long as they are “getting things done” — and so long as they do not tread on what touches ordinary people directly. Mr Hancock repeatedly called on the public to obey rules that he flagrantly disregarded himself. In doing so, he crossed a line.

Leader comment: Fall of the Health Secretary

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