What on earth possessed him to hand 100,000 WhatsApps to a notorious lockdown sceptic?
BeAMING at the launch party for their book, Matt hancock and co- author Isabel oakeshott look every inch the power duo.
They were the toast of the gathering of political luminaries in the great hall of the science Museum in London as the former health secretary’s pandemic diaries were unveiled.
It was the culmination of a year’s secret collaboration between the pair. Mr hancock had entrusted a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes messages to the author and political journalist, and she had helped him craft his explosive insider account of the Covid crisis.
Yet behind her smiles at the launch party last December, was Ms oakeshott – who is no stranger to controversy – even then plotting to audaciously double-cross her writing partner?
For the ink was barely dry on the book, in which Mr hancock gallantly penned a gushing acknowledgement to Ms oakeshott’s writing prowess and her ‘tenacity at getting me to remember the most telling detail’, when she decided there were further column inches to be wrung from the 100,000 private WhatsApp messages Mr hancock had handed over to her.
As she marvelled in a spectator article a few days after the launch event: ‘hancock shared far more than I could ever have imagined. I have viewed thousands and thousands of sensitive government communications relating to the pandemic, a fascinating and very illuminating exercise. I was not paid a penny for this work, but the time I spent on the project – almost a year – was richly rewarding in other ways.’
And yesterday, as the sensitive material was splurged over seven pages of The Daily Telegraph, Ms oakeshott admitted there was no secret about how it all came into her possession. she wrote how she and Mr hancock had drawn heavily on the messages to reconstruct his day-byday account, adding: ‘suffice to say, there was plenty of important material left over.’
To make matters more toxic, the Telegraph’s coverage of the WhatsApp messages casts Mr hancock in a markedly less favourable light than his own version of events in their book, which was serialised in the Daily Mail. It left the blindsided exCabinet minister seething at Ms oakeshott’s betrayal, reportedly vowing to sue her for breaching his confidences.
Allies of Mr hancock accused her of breaking a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to sell ‘stolen’ messages which had been sent to her ‘for one purpose only’ – to be part of her work on his diaries. ‘her behaviour is outrageous,’ one fumed.
But privately, many Tory MPs and political journalists expressed astonishment that Mr hancock had entrusted millions of words of private correspondence to Ms oakeshott, of all people. one political journalist said: ‘The man needs his head testing to have gone near oakeshott with a flaming trebuchet, let alone a bargepole.’
For while Mr hancock may be regretting his collaboration with Ms oakeshott, it is not the first time she has been at the centre of a controversy over a source placing their trust in her.
When she was political editor of The sunday Times, in 2011, she persuaded vicky Pryce – the former wife of Liberal Democrat minister Chris huhne – to reveal how she had conspired with him to avoid a fine for a speeding offence. As a result of the story – and the newspaper and Ms oakeshott giving up correspondence which exposed their source – Ms Pryce ended up in jail, as did her ex-husband. Despite the convention that journalists should do their utmost to protect their sources, Ms oakeshott stood by her decision.
she said last night: ‘I’m a storygetter. What I do is the public interest. Whether it’s a lying serving Cabinet minister – as in the case of Chris huhne – or the total absence of any deadline for the vital public inquiry into the pandemic, I will do what I have to do in the public interest, and take whatever knocks come. The response to the pandemic was a disaster. Nothing is more important than getting to the truth of it. That’s what’s driven this.’
Yesterday Lord Bethell, a former ministerial colleague of Mr hancock, observed dryly on BBC Radio 4’ s Today programme: ‘I think Isabel is a terrific journalist. she’s not a very good friend.’
In 2015, Ms oakeshott helped write an unauthorised biography of David Cameron, largely remembered for an allegation he had engaged in sexual congress with a dead pig while at a decadent university party.
And many wonder why Mr hancock went into partnership with a writer who had vehemently
‘The man needs his head testing’
‘She’s not a very good friend’
opposed his Covid policies. In her startling article in the spectator four days after the diaries’ release, Ms oakeshott proclaimed she had ‘almost nothing in common’ with him, and the pair ‘fundamentally disagree over his handling of the pandemic’. Appearing to mock him, she added: ‘since he still does not believe he did anything wrong, he was surprisingly inclined to disclosure.’
Yesterday Robert Colvile, of the Centre for Policy studies think-tank, remarked that ‘the main lesson I’ve learned from this is not to hire someone who absolutely hates your signature policy as your ghostwriter’.
Ms oakeshott, 48, is also in a long- term relationship with Richard Tice, the leader of the Reform Party which hopes to take votes off the Conservatives at the next election.
Ms oakeshott’s camp is said to be ‘unconcerned’ about the possibility of legal action. she does not deny signing an NDA, but a source said: ‘she did not have a commercial relationship with Mr hancock. she spent the best part of a year working for him for no money. It would be very difficult for him to sue. The public interest is overwhelming.’