Matt Hancock: an ambitious operator who ‘knows which levers to pull’

Tory MPs who wish to see Matt Hancock leave the cabinet are frustrated this weekend. They believe that the health secretary’s career was already in the sights of Boris Johnson before Dominic Cummings’ full-frontal attack on Wednesday.

But as a consequence of Cummings’ explosive claims that Hancock repeatedly lied to Johnson, the cabinet and the public – resulting in tens of thousands of extra deaths from Covid-19 – senior Tories, including the PM, have been forced publicly to back the health secretary.

“Dom, the supposed master tactician, did not think this through. If his target was Hancock, he missed because he was so critical of Boris’s role too. If the PM admits that Cummings’ allegations about Matt are true, then inevitably questions will be asked about Boris,” one MP said.

Hancock has managed to cling on to frontbench positions during the premierships of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson through a mixture of political skill and overriding ambition.

Born in 1978 in Cheshire to parents who ran a software firm, he moved swiftly from an independent school to read PPE at Oxford before becoming chief of staff to the then chancellor, George Osborne.

He was elected MP for West Suffolk in 2010, and wore his ambition and his closeness to the ever more powerful Osborne on his sleeve.

At a gathering of the parliamentary party in 2014, the Eurosceptic MP Philip Davies mocked the chancellor’s ally, reportedly saying: “Anyone tempted to lick George Osborne’s backside should be careful because if you go too far you will find the soles of Matt Hancock’s shoes in the way.”

But after becoming postmaster general in 2015 – his first cabinet role – his smooth path to the top was thwarted by the EU referendum. Cameron resigned, May was elected leader and Osborne was sacked, leaving Hancock with few advocates.

Reports have claimed that he pleaded with May and her aides to keep any government job – a claim denied by his friends. But he accepted a demotion to a junior role in the culture department before eventually being promoted to culture secretary and then health secretary.

His success in clawing his way back into the cabinet was a result of hard work, one former cabinet colleague said. “He is enthusiastic – Tiggerish is the right word – and is absolutely focused on doing the job.”

Another said he understands the workings of Whitehall better than anyone in the cabinet other than Michael Gove. “It would be wrong to underestimate him, just because he comes across as irritating. He knows which levers to pull,” he said.

Hancock stood to become party leader after May resigned, but after gathering a handful of supporters, he withdrew and supported Johnson as the next prime minister.

During the pandemic, allegations of cronyism and a lack of openness have dogged Hancock. Questions were raised by the Guardian about why his former neighbour was supplying the government with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests despite no previous experience in the field. In February, a high court judge ruled that Hancock had acted unlawfully by handing out PPE contracts without publishing details in a timely way.

Despite numerous calls for his sacking – and increasingly hostile commentary about his abilities in right-leaning press, including the Daily Mail – Johnson has stuck by him.

Hancock’s long-term future could depend on whether Cummings’ most damaging claim – that the health secretary told Johnson “categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to care homes” – is backed by witnesses.

Cummings told MPs last week that there were several others in the cabinet room when Hancock offered reassurances about care homes, including the then cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill and other No 10 staff and health officials.

Johnson’s former aide said he pushed for Hancock to be replaced, but that Johnson was advised to keep him in post “because he’s the person you fire when the [public] inquiry comes along”.

The prime minister initially declined to respond directly when asked if Hancock was the right person for the role, but Downing Street later issued a statement expressing full confidence in him.

A supporter of Hancock said he was open and candid with the prime minister about testing at all times and said his record in the department of health during the biggest health crisis in 100 years would speak for itself. The health secretary’s team should be credited with successfully developing and expanding the number of Covid tests and had a major hand in the vaccine programme, he claimed.

“I do not think that the word of Dominic Cummings – someone with his track record in behaving with integrity in government – should be taken as gospel. Matt will be shown to have done his best and told the truth through this pandemic,” he said.

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