What is it about Conservative politicians? How do they manage not only to escape the consequences of their various misdeeds, but actually to profit from them?
Boris Johnson, who was forced from office in disgrace, is now starting to rake in obscene speaking fees (£315,000 for a 30-minute speech and “fireside chat” at the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers in Colorado). Suella Braverman, who had to resign as home secretary on 19 October for using her personal email to send sensitive information, was reinstated by Rishi Sunak six days later.
Gavin Williamson, sacked as defence secretary by Theresa May for leaking National Security Council deliberations and as education secretary by Johnson for incompetence, is back in Sunak’s cabinet – at least for now. It remains to be seen whether his vile tirade against Wendy Morton, the former chief whip, for not inviting him to the Queen’s funeral suffices to get him sacked a third time.
And then there’s Matt Hancock, now earning £400,000 for appearing on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Over at Channel 4 the makers of SAS: Who Dares Wins are said to be less than thrilled, the Sun reports, because Hancock had already signed up as one of their contestants in (and begun filming for) a series that will not be screened until next year. Alas, that’s what happens when you make a deal with a complete charlatan.
Lest we forget, just 17 months have elapsed since Hancock was forced to resign as health secretary for breaching the draconian social distancing rules that he had imposed on the nation during the Covid pandemic. He did so by having an affair with an aide, Gina Coladangelo. He is not a celebrity. He is a disgraced former minister who betrayed the trust not just of his wife and three children, but of the entire country.
There was a time when Hancock’s conduct would have permanently disqualified him from public life. Remember John Profumo? In 1963 he had to resign as war secretary for having an affair with a model and spent the rest of his life working voluntarily for an East End charity to make amends. We live in a very different age. Today politicians seem to rise and flourish not by being honourable, good at their jobs or figures of real substance, but through sycophancy, self-promotion and utter shamelessness.
Hancock is a classic example. A creation of David Cameron and George Osborne, he won his West Suffolk constituency in 2010 and was soon using a parliamentary question to plug a book he had written about the financial crash (Masters of Nothing). Cameron gave him his first ministerial job in 2012, when he was 33. Asked to respond to charges that the Conservative Party was full of callow career politicians with little experience of the real world, Hancock had the gall in an interview with the Spectator to compare himself to Winston Churchill and William Pitt, who both took office young.
He was promoted rapidly – too rapidly to make a real impact in any of the five different posts he held over the next four years. At an away-day for Tory MPs a colleague generated much mirth by quipping: “Anyone attempting to lick George Osborne’s backside should be careful because if you go too far you’ll find the soles of Matt Hancock’s shoes in the way.”
In January 2018 May promoted him to the cabinet as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, where he attracted derision by becoming the first MP to launch his own smartphone app. Seven undistinguished months later she made him health secretary. In a measure of his capacity for self-delusion he sought the Tory party leadership when May resigned the following year, presenting himself as “the candidate of the future”, but came sixth in the first round with just 20 MPs supporting him. He then withdrew.
Johnson, the winner, retained him as health secretary and he was still there when the Covid pandemic struck in March 2020. Hancock boasts of his part in “rolling out the world’s fastest vaccine programme”. He fails to mention the government’s woeful lack of preparedness for such a pandemic; its catastrophic transfer of infected patients from hospitals to care homes despite his claim to have thrown a “protective ring” around the latter; the uselessness of the £37bn track-and-trace scheme that he oversaw; and the spending of billions more on protective personal equipment, much of which was procured from Conservative Party cronies and turned out to be useless (a former pub landlord in Hancock’s constituency inexplicably received a £40m contract for testing vials).
Roughly 200,000 British citizens died of Covid-19 – giving the country one of the highest death rates in the world. In a text to his former aide Dominic Cummings, Johnson called Hancock “totally f***ing hopeless”.
Then came Hancock’s affair, resignation and the break-up of his marriage. Most politicians would have kept a low-profile for a decent period after such a fall from grace, but not Hancock. Only a few months later he was back boasting of a UN job offer (withdrawn), giving interviews, negotiating a book contract and being photographed swimming in the icy Serpentine lido in Hyde Park.
In this year’s two Conservative Party leadership races Hancock backed Sunak, doubtless hoping for preferment. “Few have worked more closely with him than me. He has fine judgement, seriousness of purpose and good character,” he gushed in a typically oleaginous yet self-promoting Tweet. But he failed to secure a place in Sunak’s cabinet, and the new Prime Minister blatantly snubbed him when greeting a cheering throng outside Conservative Party headquarters after his election.
Unabashed, Hancock is now pursuing a different course. He is following the illustrious examples of Nadine Dorries and George Galloway by cashing in on his notoriety through reality TV (95 per cent of the public have heard of him, though only 16 per cent like him).
He is seeking to portray his appearance on I’m a Celebrity as some sort of good, almost heroic deed. He will be swapping home comforts for the “extreme conditions of the Australian outback”, he says. He will use his appearances to promote his dyslexia campaign. He will give some of the proceeds to a Suffolk hospice, though he has conspicuously failed to say how much. “It’s our job as politicians to go to where the people are – not to sit in ivory towers in Westminster,” he argues.
Nobody is fooled by such self-serving tosh. Not his constituency association, which has accused him of a “serious error of judgement”. Not the Conservative Party, which has withdrawn the whip. Not Sunak, who is “disappointed” Hancock has forsaken his constituents in the midst of such a severe cost-of-living crisis. And not the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which said: “Our families were ripped apart by Matt Hancock’s actions, and turning on the TV to see him being paraded around as a joke is sickening.”
In the event, millions of viewers tuned in to the launch of the new series on Sunday night (6 November) to discover that Hancock was not yet on the set. He will appear in later episodes. Hopefully, when he does, this embodiment of the vacuous, self-serving modern politician will be voted off the programme in short order. And hopefully his Suffolk constituents will do exactly the same come the next election.
[See also: Will Rishi Sunak sack Gavin Williamson?]