Scandal of Kissing Official Threatens to Hurt Boris Johnson in Key Week
(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to move on from the embarrassing resignation of his health secretary Matt Hancock but the scandal might still cause him serious trouble in a key week for U.K.’s Conservative government.
The premier acted quickly to appoint former finance minister Sajid Javid as a replacement for Hancock, who quit Saturday after he was caught kissing his aide at work in breach of the government’s own pandemic rules.
Yet the episode has raised further questions over the way Johnson’s team handles itself, and risks undermining his administration’s public health agenda and political ambitions.
The first danger for Johnson is that the lurid saga damages his government’s message to the public to stick to pandemic rules in order to limit the spread of the delta variant of coronavirus. Cases in the U.K. are now rising to their highest level since February.
On Monday, the government is expected to confirm that the spike in infections means it won’t be possible to lift social distancing restrictions earlier than July 19. One option had been for an early release from the curbs on July 5 but the surge in cases has made that less likely.
Britain’s successful vaccination roll-out has significantly reduced deaths and hospitalizations, yet officials still worry about a major new wave of infections overwhelming hospitals and the rise in the delta strain already forced a delay to ending the restrictions of a month.
The second risk for Johnson is that the Hancock story hurts the Conservatives’ preparations for an important parliamentary district election taking place on July 1.
The Tories have been tipped to win the northern English constituency of Batley and Spen, a seat held by the opposition Labour Party since 1997 but which has recently seen support for Johnson grow. According to members of Parliament, the Hancock row was causing voters in the area to think again about their party over the weekend.
If Johnson loses, it would be the second poor result in quick succession. The Tories lost a by-election in the southern seat of Chesham and Amersham this month, prompting concern that the Conservatives may be losing support in their traditional heartlands.
Then there’s the detail of the Hancock episode itself, which has raised questions that are still unanswered.
Hancock quit after The Sun newspaper published photos and a video of him and Gina Coladangelo, whom he’d appointed to his team, apparently kissing in his government offices last month. Hancock initially tried to keep his job, and Johnson backed him, saying on Friday that the matter was closed.
That led to criticism of Johnson for being too weak to fire the minister.
“Boris Johnson was too slow, too weak and didn’t show the leadership that was needed,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a clip on Twitter. “There is a lack of integrity at the heart of government, and it starts with Boris Johnson.”
Other details also offer the premier’s opponents scope for further attacks. Reports over the weekend claimed Hancock used his own personal email accounts to conduct official government business, potentially enabling him to evade the usual rules and scrutiny.
An inquiry is also under way into the security breach that enabled the video footage to be leaked to the media.
Hancock resigned on Saturday, saying he did not want his private life to “distract” from the need to focus on beating the pandemic. Pressure had been mounting behind the scenes, with senior officials in the Conservative Party considering his behavior beyond the pale.
“Those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them and that’s why I’ve got to resign,” Hancock, 42, said in a social media video.
New Health Secretary Javid takes charge of Britain’s pandemic response as the government aims to lift remaining coronavirus restrictions on July 19, having delayed the final easing to give more time to vaccinate the population.
Javid is likely to take a more liberal approach to the question of restrictions than his predecessor, said Salma Shah, a former Javid adviser, speaking on BBC TV on Sunday.
“I want our country to get out of this pandemic and that will be my most immediate priority,” Javid said in an emailed statement. “We have made enormous progress in our battle against this disease.”
Another looming battle for Johnson concerns foreign holidays. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for an EU-wide move to impose quarantine restrictions on British tourists in order to contain the spread of the delta variant. Johnson is due to host Merkel at his Chequers residence on Friday.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.