Matt Hancock’s ‘Clinch’ Should Really Worry Boris Johnson

It wasn’t the extramarital affair with an aide — exposed in a photographic scoop by British tabloid The Sun on Friday — that cost Matt Hancock his job as U.K. Health Secretary. For better or worse, such private indiscretions are no longer considered a cause for resignation.

But it quickly became clear that Hancock’s now famous “clinch” in his office with top aide Gina Coladangelo, caught on CCTV, was not a simple private matter. The hypocrisy over breaking his own lockdown rules did not sit well with a public forced to avoid mingling for months. By Saturday, Hancock was out and Sajid Javid — a Tory heavyweight who has served in senior government roles and once challenged Boris Johnson for the party leadership — assumed the newly empty post in cabinet.

Some scandals titillate and then blow over, leaving broken families to pick up the pieces. This one might too. But there are a number of ways it could have repercussions for Johnson’s government — in public opinion and respect for future lockdown rules, in the official inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, and in shifts to the balance of power around the cabinet table.

While the principle failing here is Hancock’s, the situation casts a sharp light on his boss: a prime minister who himself has played fast and loose with conventions, rules and his own solemn commitments.  

Johnson’s MO is to back his cabinet members even when their behavior falls short of the standards of public office. Given his own well-documented record of breaking rules, that’s hardly surprising. Recall that in March, American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri dished out the details on what she says was a four-year affair with Johnson when he was the (married) mayor of London — during which time Arcuri was taken along on mayoral junkets and received public funds for her start-up.

Johnson, who was once sacked from his position as a shadow minister after lying about his own affair, swatted away the story. The prime minister, who doesn’t comment on his private life, insisted he’d done nothing improper. The reaction? Crickets.

That sort of response has added to an atmosphere of impunity within the government. Johnson refused to sack his once indispensable aide Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown rules, drawing widespread public criticism. And he stood by Home Secretary Priti Patel after an official report into her bullying found that she had breached the ministerial code, normally a resigning offense.

This time, it appears, hypocrisy was too brazen for even the most permissive of leaders. The fact that Hancock’s affair was in part conducted on government premises and with a subordinate he hired — something that would cost many people in the private sector their jobs these days — certainly calls his professional judgment into question even if it didn’t break official rules. That on its own wouldn’t have bothered Johnson much.

But by Hancock’s admission, breaking his own lockdown rules made his position untenable. He has been a central figure in formulating the government’s Covid response, which eventually included some of the toughest and longest-running lockdown restrictions anywhere. And he constantly warned people against breaking them. Brits were told in January they could be fined for sitting on a park bench. In February, Hancock threatened a 10-year prison sentence for breaking quarantine.

When Imperial College London Professor Neil Ferguson was caught breaking lockdown restrictions last year to see a lover, Hancock said the epidemiologist’s behavior left him “speechless” and that he was right to resign. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood also had to resign in April last year for breaking lockdown rules.

The photo (and later-released video) of Hancock and Coladangelo kissing apparently took place on May 6, when indoor hugging outside one’s family (or immediate bubble) was not allowed. So it took some gumption for Hancock to initially insist, with Johnson’s backing, that he could soldier on.

Once Hancock admitted he broke the rules, however, there was suddenly a perfect place for his colleagues to channel their frustration with months of constraints. Some lawmakers called for his resignation; many turned a cold shoulder and didn’t come to his defense.

The former health minister’s support for draconian lockdown measures has been hugely unpopular among many Tory lawmakers. And there are plenty of criticisms about his handling of the pandemic, from shortages in personal protective equipment to the U-turns over testing and the failed contact-tracing system. The government is having to answer in court for accusations of monumental government waste and allegations of cronyism.

In his dramatic seven-hour testimony before parliament, Cummings accused Hancock of gross incompetence, as well as of lying to the prime minister and cabinet. Hancock dismissed those barbs as sour grapes from a former insider. In retrospect, Hancock’s own blithe denial that there had been a PPE crisis was even more brazen than his rule-breaking clinch.

The scandal will further test trust in Johnson’s government and weaken support for existing and future Covid restrictions. Hancock’s departure will leave Johnson more exposed to questions about the U.K.’s handling of the pandemic, which will be the subject of a major public inquiry promised by the spring of 2022.

It also brings a heavy-hitter into the cabinet. Javid is a skilled politician who will have strong views on health-care policy, including Johnson’s promised, but undelivered, reform of social care. As the government makes difficult spending decisions coming out of the pandemic, his presence could boost Johnson’s fortunes — or contribute to an eventual challenge if the prime minister’s management style becomes too great a liability.

Not everything the public is interested in is a matter of public interest, as the 2012 Leveson inquiry into ethics and the media noted. At least for the sake of the children unwittingly involved in the Hancock affair and similar scandals, one hopes the bar remains high for these public airings of private decisions.

But voters also have a right to expect elected officials to follow their own rules. Past Tory governments have been punished by voters after allegations of sleaze and hypocrisy. Johnson’s position may now be secure, but if current trends continue, he will have to work hard to avoid the same fate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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