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Lockdown files

Politicians should be free to argue in private

Matt Hancock with his now partner Gina Coladangelo. Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

“Matt Hancock may be a complete idiot,” says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, “but even idiots have rights.” His ghostwriter, Isabel Oakeshott, claims she broke her non-disclosure agreement and leaked his WhatsApp messages because they were in the public interest. But that’s bunk. Hancock had already given his messages to the official Covid inquiry, which should be the “real judge” of which ones are published. Besides, there’s nothing particularly damning about their contents. Yes, there was “disarray and panic” in government, but wouldn’t you expect that in times of “unforeseen” crisis? What’s more, they show that British policy was “fully debated, often bitterly”. This is “surely a virtue” – the alternative approach was China’s, where disagreement with Xi Jinping meant disloyalty, so “a hugely damaging lockdown went unchallenged”.

In the long run, this leak will do more harm than good. Officials should feel able to “fight out policy” without “trial and humiliation”. Nobody benefits from the leaking of sensitive information: the collapse of cabinet secrecy under Tony Blair, for instance, led to decision-making “retreating behind the closed door” of informal “sofa government”. Whitehall needs to create “conduits” for officials to discuss and disagree on policy – yes, even using “flip remarks” and “four-letter words” – without fearing their opinions will be splashed all over the front pages. The fact that one of Boris Johnson’s colleagues privately described him as a “nationally distrusted figure”, for example, is a sign of necessary political debate. I doubt politicians would be quite as bold now, knowing the world, and their boss, “might be listening”.

😇💰 Oakeshott has good reason for being coy over how much the Telegraph paid her for handing over Hancock’s messages, says Mandrake in The New European: she is probably “acutely aware she’s treading on thin legal ice”. Lawyers say that if it can be shown her main motivation was money, then her public interest defence could well fall apart.