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30 June 2021

Leader: Mr Hancock and the chumocracy

Under the former cabinet minister, the Department of Health became a den of rampant nepotism.

By New Statesman

For too long, Matt Hancock enjoyed a seemingly gilded political career. Having served as chief of staff to the then shadow chancellor George ­Osborne, he entered parliament in 2010 at the age of just 31. When questioned on his relative youth, he invoked Winston Churchill and William Pitt as men who became MPs in their twenties and “achieved great heights over their careers”. He had serious ambitions.

Mr Hancock rose quickly, becoming health secretary in 2018. He ran for the leadership of his party after the resignation of Theresa May, and retained his cabinet post having transferred his loyalties to Boris Johnson. He exemplified the kind of MP that thrived during the Cameron years: invariably Oxford-educated, insouciant, an assiduous networker and ruthlessly ambitious.

But it was Mr Hancock’s boundless confidence that proved his downfall. On 26 June he resigned as health secretary ­after leaked CCTV footage from inside his private ­Westminster office revealed that he had broken social distancing rules by kissing his married aide, Gina Coladangelo.

Private lives are not the test of fitness for public office, but Mr Hancock fell beneath the very standards he demanded of others. A year ago he declared himself “speechless” after Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist and government adviser, broke lockdown rules by visiting his married girlfriend, arguing that this was “a matter for the police”. Mr Hancock implored the public not to have sex outside of “established relationships” to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Hypocrisy was not his only sin. In March 2020, he hired Ms Coladangelo as an adviser at the Department of Health and later made her a non-executive director – granting her membership of the board that supposedly scrutinises the department and entitling her to a taxpayer-funded stipend of £15,000. Had it not been for the Sun newspaper’s publication of CCTV footage (about which the paper’s editor Victoria Newton writes on page 19), the extent of their personal relationship may never have been revealed. The Sun’s scoop was emphatically in the public interest.

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During Mr Hancock’s tenure, the Department of Health became a den of rampant nepotism. In May, he was found to have broken the ministerial code by failing to declare a 20 per cent stake in his sister’s company when it won an NHS framework contract in February 2019. During the Covid-19 crisis, a £30m test tube contract was awarded to Alex Bourne, a former neighbour of Mr Hancock  and a pub landlord. His ­company Hinpack had no history of producing medical goods. In February 2021, a High Court judge ruled that Mr Hancock acted unlawfully by awarding protective personal equipment contracts without publishing details ­within the required 30 days.

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That none of these offences cost Mr Hancock his job is indicative of the decline of basic accountability in public life. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who presided over the A-level results debacle, acted unlawfully by removing safeguards for children in care without consulting children’s rights organisations. The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, broke the law by fast-tracking the Conservative donor Richard Desmond’s planned £1bn east London property development and helping him avoid £45m in community charges. And so it goes on.

This pattern of power without responsibility is unsurprising – Mr Johnson’s ministers have little reason to fear reprisals from a Prime Minister who has evaded proper accountability throughout his career. As Jonathan Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the former head of MI5, recently observed: “The perception is taking root that too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years and that, when contraventions of ethical standards occur, nothing happens.”

Mr Hancock may have resigned but the fragile system that he exploited endures.