The departure of Matt Hancock from the cabinet is not the end of the matter. It may only be the beginning. Boris Johnson swiftly appointed former chancellor Sajid Javid to replace Mr Hancock, who resigned a day after pictures showing him kissing his aide Gina Coladangelo at work in breach of the government’s social distancing regulations. Yet the whole business raises questions about how government works, who it is in office to serve and risks eroding confidence in public health measures.
In breaking his own pandemic rules Mr Hancock diminished the public’s willingness to adhere to lockdown guidelines. He thought he could apologise and move on. But clearly nothing less than his resignation would restore trust in the government’s ability to manage the pandemic, which is vital as it underpins public attitudes and behaviours. There is such a thing as trust and respect in politics. They make a difference, despite Mr Johnson setting no store by them.
Thanks to the delta variant, Covid cases are at their highest level since January, so there’s no guarantee Britain can relax its guard whatever freedom-loving soundbites Mr Javid gives to please Tory backbenchers. Even with a successful vaccination rollout, the government cannot be complacent; just ask BBC presenter Andrew Marr, Oms caught Covid despite being double-jabbed. Because he did not take Mr Hancock’s offence seriously, the prime minister has made the task of getting the public to comply with social distancing restrictions for at least another three weeks much harder.
Mr Johnson’s instinct is not to dump cabinet ministers because they have done something wrong, a pattern of behaviour that reveals a lot about his government. Britain has a home secretary who was found to have bullied staff and should have been sacked by the prime minister for breaking the ministerial code. Another minister, Robert Jenrick, by his own admission acted unlawfully in a case when the planning troubles of Richard Desmond, a Tory donor and former newspaper owner turned property mogul, evaporated after they found themselves next to each other at a Conservative party dinner. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, remains in post despite overseeing an exams fiasco. Accountability is something that this government holds in contempt.
Mr Johnson thinks he is entitled to make up and play by his own rules. The public has still not been told who paid for his Caribbean holiday last December. Mr Johnson stuck by Mr Hancock, who had installed his mistress on a government salary to “mark his department’s homework”. The cabinet minister resigned on the eve of further revelations about the use of private emails that bypass disclosure rules when doing government business. Notably the former health secretary had personally referred an old neighbour wanting an NHS contract on to an official.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, excused this behaviour by claiming that this does not matter to the voters who back the Tories. This attitude may have cost Mr Johnson a byelection in a remain-voting seat earlier this month. It is less likely to damage the government’s standing in a leave-voting constituency this week. This points to a divided nation: one part in which a narrow electoral advantage can be pressed too far; and another in which it cannot. Mr Johnson thinks sacrificing conventions, such as honest dealing and pragmatic choices, on a populist altar will benefit his short-term popularity in target seats. The prime minister can clear whomever he wishes on the flimsiest of pretexts. The health secretary resigned after Mr Johnson backed him, revealing just how wrong he can be – which is bad for Britain and its politics.