The Daily Telegraph

Britain got the lockdown champion it deserved

In Hancock we see a reflection of our modern country: well-intentione­d, funny and utterly futile

- Tim stanley

Matt Hancock’s treasure trove of messages gives us insight into one of the great Walter Mittys of our age, a man so out of his depth he must have occasional­ly got the bends. There is Matt the Bond villain (“When do we deploy the new variant”?), spin doctor (let’s “frighten the pants off everyone”), model (“I think I look great!”) and love rat (“This is a first offence and genuine.”)

He shared a friend’s observatio­n that Covid “could propel you into the next league”, but when news broke that he’d been cavorting with Gina Coladangel­o, live on CCTV, the only way was down. Having set the rules, Matt and his staff scrambled to work out what they were and if he’d broken them – and Damon Poole, his media advisor, dug up a potential loophole.

“Step 2 regs, Exception 2”: gatherings were permitted “for the provision of voluntary or charitable services.”

“Well,” said Matt, “it was voluntary and arguably charitable!” If Love Island won’t take him, Matt could have a future as a Telegraph sketch writer.

But how in the name of Hattie Jacques did this man of marginal ability and dubious character become health secretary? One answer is that when he took the job, in 2018, it wasn’t considered very important.

The health service was devolved and self-governing; Jeremy Hunt, Matt’s predecesso­r, limited his day-to-day responsibi­lities to wearing an NHS badge. Hancock’s innovation was to take that badge and stick a rainbow flag on it (because when you’re lying on a hospital trolley, bleeding to death, it’s a comfort to know that the A&E you’re not being treated in is inclusive and diverse).

We have to blame Brexit, too. Leavers, like me, were so obsessed with “getting it done” we were willing to park other issues, like health reform, and vote for a team that wasn’t the best. But ... Remainers must also take responsibi­lity for opposing Brexit so doggedly that they pushed half the country into the arms of such incompeten­ts. Matt was a Remainer, though it probably wasn’t one of his conviction­s. He hasn’t got any of those. Yet.

There’s a running theme in the Lockdown Files of Westminste­r contempt for the so-called “hard-right” of the Conservati­ve Party, characteri­sed as libertaria­n, even provirus. Enthusiasm for lockdown was about saving lives, absolutely; yet in the deepest recesses of our political id it was also Remainers’ Revenge. Not in the sense of it being narrowly motivated by Brexit but because it allowed bureaucrat­s and experts who felt spurned by populism to re-flex their muscles – and a large number of Britons who felt discombobu­lated by the politics of the past few years (however they’d voted) to “take back control” via a giant reboot of culture and society. Lockdown was popular. Many people have never left it.

When Boris considered lifting some of the restrictio­ns in the summer of 2020, he was warned that it would be “too far ahead of public opinion”, which probably favoured tougher regulation­s for longer. One might speculate that Matt was the health secretary Britain deserved because he largely did what we wanted. A more thoughtful individual who questioned the science, moved cautiously and visibly U-turned on policies when they didn’t work would not have provided the reassuranc­e we craved. Intelligen­ce spreads panic.

This was our generation’s Blitz and we fought it in our own style, with empathy and clapping. Hancock emerges as the embodiment of this generation­al geist, communicat­ing with his friends in emojis. “You are glorious,” he told Michael Gove. “I heart you,” Michael said. “Thanks for bigging me up,” he wrote to George Osborne. “You are big now,” George reminded him. Later, when the sex scandal broke, Matt sent the former chancellor the first draft of his resignatio­n video (a letter is not enough anymore: we’re lucky we didn’t get a podcast).

Best not to tell the world that you “love” Gina, advised George; “It feels a little awkward and premature.” And you probably want to apologise to your family. It seems Matt initially wanted media focus to be on his hiring of Gina – not if he broke distancing rules, and certainly not the Old Testament sin of adultery. The first time it appears he discussed apologisin­g for the latter was after a conversati­on with the prime minister. This puts Hancock in the historical­ly unique position of having been lectured on fidelity by Boris Johnson and sensitivit­y by George Osborne.

Perhaps I should be kinder. Hancock had the best of intentions, and if you dug through anyone’s Whatsapps, you’d be horrified by the results. He is human and familiar – a mirror, even, to an age of fake tears and fake news, of elastic reality.

When he saw that video of Matt and Gina kissing, Poole said it looked “doctored”. When the Lockdown Files leaked, Matt called those “doctored”, too – and no doubt there is a doctored photo of him out there of him with his arm around Prince Andrew. To the bitter end, Hancock tells us what he thinks we want to hear, that he’s going on I’m a Celebrity and he’s doing it for dyslexia.

This was the politician who, at the height of his career, opened an empty hospital that would never be used – a hollow man in the hollow ward, a saga that leaves one wondering how much of lockdown was necessary and how much was simply a bromide?

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