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30 June 2021

First Thoughts: An old-fashioned sex scandal, parking pains, and why Love Island is the leveller we all need

Matt Hancock's resignation has set a precedent: even Boris Johnson may now struggle to bluff his way through allegations of hypocrisy. 

By Rachel Cunliffe

The sorry saga of Matt Hancock has given Westminster something long considered impossible from Boris Johnson’s administration: an actual resignation. The scandals surrounding this government are too many to count – shady housing developments, bullying of officials, breaches of the ministerial code, not to mention ludicrously expensive wallpaper – and each time the Prime Minister’s tactic has been to dismiss the wave of outrage, calculating that voters are a forgiving (or at least a forgetful) bunch.

[See also: Victoria Newton’s Diary: How the Sun got its Matt Hancock scoop]

Now, a good old-fashioned sex scandal has proved cabinet members aren’t immune from consequences after all. This might be one reason Boris Johnson – himself no fan of Hancock, as an expletive-ridden WhatsApp message demonstrated – initially stood by the former health secretary. Once the facade of invincibility cracks even slightly, it’s at risk of shattering completely. 

It is almost inevitable that other government scandals will eventually come to light, from affairs to dodgy contracts to violations of lockdown rules. With Hancock gone, ministers will find it harder to weather public pressure and ignore calls for their departure. Even Johnson might struggle to bluff his way through any future allegations of cronyism and hypocrisy.

Collective catharsis 

Someone who knows all about not resigning after breaking Covid rules is Dominic Cummings, who is reinventing himself as a political pundit. Cummings has discovered a new way to bring his message to the masses: instead of 6,000-word blog posts, he has taken to critiquing the government in real time via pithy tweets. A recent one revived the analogy of the PM as a “trolley” crashing from aisle to aisle to describe his handling of the Hancock affair: from Johnson first accepting his apology and saying he considered “the matter closed”, to later implying he’d decided to sack the health secretary immediately.

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For all that Cummings might see himself as some kind of omniscient whistle-blower, to me he is reminiscent of the chorus in Greek tragedy: narrating the action from the sidelines, but now thoroughly inconsequential to what’s happening on stage.

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[See also: Rule-breaking ministers who did not resign under Boris Johnson]

Not in my backyard

This week’s prize for nimbyism goes to the Lib Dems. A councillor in Brent, north-west London, proudly tweeted out a letter he had written opposing plans to develop a bus garage into three tower blocks. Chief among his concerns were “congestion and parking problems” for local residents were these 460 new homes to be built. Housing development must of course be backed by infrastructure investment (more local schools, better healthcare provision). But arguing that the risk of parking headaches is enough to deny young people homes in an area with superb public transport links is absurd.

The Lib Dems capitalised on nimby sentiment to win the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election, but they aren’t alone. Earlier this year, a Conservative councillor boasted of preventing development on a car park, while a recent Labour leaflet attacks the government’s plans to reform planning laws to make it easier to build. For all the major parties’ talk about tackling the housing crisis, their priorities evidently lie elsewhere.

Loved up

I have never been a Love Island fan, but while watching the trailer for the latest season, something hit me: the contestants are people who have never experienced rejection. They are so toned, so tanned, so perfectly polished that, prior to the show, they have never had to try to get someone to fancy them. Trapped in a villa with other implausibly beautiful contestants, their advantage dissolves and if they want to stay in, they must suddenly develop personalities and learn how to actually talk to members of the opposite sex. 

In a way, Love Island is the ultimate levelling exercise – and maybe that’s one reason it has such sensational appeal despite how monotonous and manufactured it is. We all get insecure – it’s refreshing to be reminded that beneath the sculpted veneers, beautiful people are just as messed up as we are. 

[See also: Will this be the most feral Love Island yet?]