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Matt Hancock

The fallout from an ill-advised affair

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Two weeks ago I was sent a “grainy image” of Matt Hancock and Gina Coladangelo, says Isabel Oakeshott in The Spectator. I didn’t think it looked like the former health secretary. “Crooks and oddballs send journalists weird stuff all the time” – so I thoughtlessly dismissed it and “missed the scoop”.

On Wednesday last week it was The Sun’s turn. An “angry whistle-blower” contacted me, says the paper’s editor-in-chief, Victoria Newton, in the New Statesman, claiming to have “irrefutable” evidence that Hancock had breached his own lockdown rules by having an affair with his “glamorous adviser”. After dispatching a reporter to verify the incriminating video, we lined up the story for our Friday edition and I called Hancock on Thursday to tell him.

The “clear-cut” hypocrisy on show meant publishing was clearly in the public interest – and, sure enough, my phone was “pinging incessantly” from 5am on Friday morning, once the story had appeared. At this point Boris Johnson’s “default instinct was to brazen it out”, expressing “full confidence” in Hancock, said Richard Littlejohn in the Mail. But Johnson was defending the “indefensible”: rumours of the affair had been circulating round Westminster for months. If “even the tea lady at the Department of Health” knew about it, news must have reached the PM. Yet he did nothing until the affair was made public. On Saturday, inevitably, Hancock resigned.

Actually, Johnson was quite right to try to save him, says Charles Moore in the Telegraph. Prime ministers should look after their staff, or at least judge cases against them fairly. Even when John Major’s ministers were drowning in sleaze, he did his best to defend them. It was “far better for future peace” in government for Hancock to step down himself than for Johnson to make him do so. If the media or the opposition successfully force you to sack someone, “they will tend to force another and another”, until the PM himself is sacked.

It doesn’t much matter how Hancock went, says Matt d’Ancona in Tortoise. The government fears the affair will trigger a “media feeding frenzy” about the “flawed private lives and fragile marriages” of other senior government figures. At least once such relationship is already under intense scrutiny. “The story could break at any moment,” says a Downing Street source. We shouldn’t be surprised: after all, we “cheerfully endorsed a Don Juan”, Boris Johnson, as our prime minister, “nudging and winking when we should have been behaving like citizens”. Hancock’s sleaze just follows the trend: “It is a little late now to complain about its sweaty embrace.”

😘 Tory co-chairman Amanda Milling has blamed the Hancock affair for her party’s narrow loss to Labour in yesterday’s Batley and Spen by-election. And the new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has his work cut out, says James Forsyth in The Spectator. Hancock’s replacement will have to explain why reopening is going ahead on 19 July despite case numbers rising. True, vaccinations are stopping hospitalisations and deaths. But this challenge “pales in comparison” to autumn and winter: the NHS has a huge backlog of non-Covid cases, and waiting lists have topped five million for the first time. Combined with a Covid “flare-up” and a bad flu season, this could put the health service under severe strain, and there would doubtless be calls for reintroducing coronavirus restrictions. If Javid can keep “both the NHS and society open this winter”, it’ll be a significant achievement.

😘 Hancock has left his “faultless and wronged” wife, Martha, says Esther Walker in the I newspaper. She’ll eventually develop a glorious sense of freedom. “Much like Jackie Kennedy, she’s got the entire country talking about her fabulous hair and fabulous sunglasses but, crucially, she no longer has to deal with the many and varied hassles of being a politician’s wife.” Instead, Coladangelo must live as the “Other Woman”, a role that, fairly or not, has never been treated kindly. The initial romance won’t last: “If Anna Karenina can start to think twice about her dashing young lover Count Vronsky, then I’m sure the shine will come off Matt Hancock soon-ish.”