Considering how many parties they are alleged to have held, Boris Johnson and his government have recently seemed to be very short of friends.
A national shortage of Downing Street defenders reached its nadir on 8 December, the morning after a video emerged of No 10 staff laughing and joking about “cheese and wine” at a “business meeting”. Even Sajid Javid, the health secretary, pulled out of a morning media round.
Most people would understand Javid’s reticence. Still, there was one man Johnson could count on even at his lowest ebb, never mind that he had called that person “totally fucking hopeless” in a WhatsApp message last year: Matt Hancock.
A couple of weeks later, Hancock would find himself dragged into the conflagration over possible parties and social gatherings in Downing Street when the Guardian published a picture of a No 10 garden gathering in May 2020. He admitted he had been in the garden on the evening in question but said it was “not clear” whether a man in the photo seen from behind, with close cropped hair, a dark blue suit and a familiar stance, was him.
On 8 December, though, he was riding to the government’s rescue on Good Morning Britain. It was not an easy appearance for Hancock, who faced hostile questioning comparing the alleged party to his own breach of Covid regulations – the notorious kiss with his aide Gina Coladangelo, now his partner, that was captured on CCTV and led to his swift resignation in June.
“I wish I could help you more but I can’t,” he said. “The prime minister wasn’t there, as far as we understand, if there was a party.” Whatever Johnson said about Hancock’s performance as a minister, you might imagine he now seemed very useful as a human shield.
After such a nightmarish year, Hancock could be forgiven for lying low – and, indeed, has repeatedly been encouraged to do so. So what lies behind his decision to return to the fray?
Some view his re-emergence as a kind of penance, indicating his determination to reinvent himself as a backbench heavyweight. Among those he has convinced of his seriousness is Labour’s Rupa Huq, who noted on Twitter that “one can disapprove of @MattHancock’s breaking of the rules” but cited his work with her on efforts to curb the abuse of politicians, and his dyslexia campaign.
“I know he looks up to Theresa May,” the former Conservative MP Ben Howlett said. “He said to me that looking at what she’s doing, holding the government to account and using her years of experience, is very inspiring to him.”
But while May pulls no punches, Hancock’s parliamentary interventions have largely been to congratulate the government on its competence, leaving others less persuaded that he has entirely abandoned his ministerial ambitions.
“Doing the media round when the government is keeping ministers off the airwaves – it’s definitely something people in Downing Street will notice,” said Henry Hill, a news editor for the ConservativeHome website. “It’s perfectly possible to have a meaningful career on the backbenches, but that’s never been the route he’s chosen. I would put good money on his goal being a return to government.”
Hancock has always seemed to be a man in a hurry. Those who knew him in his days as a Cambridge master’s student remember a fairly flashy Jaguar and a tendency to drop friends in his hurry to climb the greasy pole. Now, too, he appears to be operating on fast-forward. His period of quiet reflection after his 27 June resignation ended on 7 September when he popped up in the House of Commons with a question in praise of the government’s furlough scheme. Rishi Sunak thought he was “absolutely right”.
Hancock’s re-emergence into the full glare of media attention took a little longer – and then proceeded with an almost masochistic intensity. On 1 December he gave his first broadcast interview since his resignation, telling ITV’s Robert Peston: “I’d blown up every part of my life … I let a lot of people down.” The next week, the day before his appearance on Good Morning Britain, he gave an interview to Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield on This Morning.
While he might have expected that an elevenses sofa chat about his campaign to improve dyslexia screening at primary schools was safe enough territory – non-ideological, unimpeachably positive and underpinned by his own experience of the condition – he endured a jarring change of pace from Schofield: “Was it your dyslexia that meant you misread the social distancing rules?”
On air, Hancock appeared ashen, pensive, humble. Off air, ITV staffers suggest, he was in a better mood, enthusiastically bumping elbows with anyone in range and hanging around after filming to chat, when as a minister he would have swiftly departed. “He almost seemed euphoric,” said one. “He didn’t seem to mind being the butt of the joke.”
Another said he came across as “nervous, but bouncy … There was a sense of – he’d got the difficult stuff out of the way – and now he’s back.”
After the brutal realities of responsibility for the nation’s health during a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and a humiliating personal crisis that led to the end of his marriage, Hancock seemed to feel “now, suddenly, you’re free … I didn’t have the impression that he was wishing he was health secretary at all.”
Whatever else, nobody could accuse Hancock of lacking the optimism to overcome experience. In August he announced that he would run the London marathon, only for his sponsorship page to be swamped by punters willing to give a minimum donation of £2 to St Nicholas Hospice Care to insult him. (“I hope your charity vest gives you nipple chafe,” wrote Alan Hamburgers, who gift-aided his contribution.) Still, Hancock got in shape, raised nearly £8,000 and came home in under four hours despite heckles from what he called a “small but noisy group of anti-vaxxers”.
In September he posted a comeback video from Haverhill, Suffolk, in which he smiled sadly through a series of observations that might have applied equally to the global pandemic or his own defenestration. “We’ve got through it, haven’t we? And now we’re coming out the other side,” he told one constituent, before leaning on a fast-food counter like the last barfly at closing time and telling a man trying to cook burgers: “It’s nice to be out and about.” After a predictable quantity of internet derision, he deleted it.
There was the surreal sight of him posing in stonewash jeans and rollneck on the red carpet of the Capital Jingle Bell Ball. There was the Daily Mail story in which he said “I have been approached to write a book”, only for the supposed publisher, HarperCollins, to issue an emphatic denial. A book summary leaked later gave the provisional title of The Race and explained that Hancock had led the UK to develop a vaccine “beating every country in the world”.
Most painful, perhaps, was his announcement on 12 October that he had been offered a job at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) as a special representative on financial innovation and climate change. The appointment was reportedly the result of representations made by the campaigner and government adviser Nimco Ali, a close friend of Carrie Johnson, to Uneca. Hancock retweeted congratulatory messages from her and 11 others before the offer was withdrawn on 16 October.
While the reversal was ostensibly forced by a sudden realisation that Hancock was ineligible as a sitting MP, it came about after at least 64 NGO leaders and scholars expressed their displeasure, according to a list provided by Tian Johnson, the founder of the African Alliance for HIV Prevention. Johnson said he saw Hancock as “a disgraced politician whose competence has been questioned in his own country and who knows little about Africa”.
Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, said he had been dismayed by the appointment. “People told me, we’ve lost this one, no way is it going to be withdrawn,” he said. “So the uproar must have been much more significant than people in the UN expected.”
Through it all, even some of Hancock’s critics admit a certain grudging admiration. “I think there’s something wrong with him,” a bemused Labour MP said. “He just keeps coming back for more. He’s got what boxers would call a very good chin.”
His allies, meanwhile, view his re-emergence as a story of redemption. “He’s still the same person,” said Rachel Hood, the chair of the West Suffolk Conservative Association. “Life’s not an exact science. Suffolk people are very nice – of course there are always dissenters, but when [the local party] looked at it all, we took the view that we would support him.” He had been a model constituency MP since then, she added, visiting a local prison literacy project and supporting a campaign to bring a cinema to Newmarket.
If such efforts lack the epic scale of The Race, Hancock is unwilling to say that he yearns for the bigger stage. “He’s not in a rush,” said someone who worked with him in government. “He’s enjoying backbench life more than he expected.” Whatever the future holds, they added, he has significant support on the backbenches, particularly among the 2019 intake.
MPs praised his responsiveness during the Covid crisis, and noted his keenness to be liked and respected by colleagues. But they were not always complimentary about his competence. And Tory strategists poured cold water on the idea of a cabinet return.
One branded him a “total fantasist”. A second said while he had built up some credibility during the pandemic, Hancock was now seen as “a joke figure”.
“There is currently no way back for him,” a veteran observer of the Conservative party said. “He has no real friends in parliament. No one owes him anything … A period of silence on his part would be welcomed by most of his colleagues.” If so, it appears that they are unlikely to get their wish.