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27 May 2021updated 28 May 2021 8:28am

Can Matt Hancock survive? Here are two reasons why he might

Ultimately, Boris Johnson should fear that the end of his Health Secretary would mean the end of him.

By Stephen Bush

How much trouble is Matt Hancock in? Dominic Cummings’s focus on the Health Secretary’s record has left him with questions to answer about what he did (or didn’t) do to protect residents in care homes, and what he said (or didn’t say) about England’s testing capacity.

But there are two reasons to believe Hancock might yet survive and thrive. The first is that the failure to protect care home residents was present across the United Kingdom: it was not only NHS England which discharged patients from hospitals without Covid testing and, in at least some cases, seeded further outbreaks of Covid-19 into care homes. The NHS in both SNP-run Scotland and Labour-run Wales did so too. That is politically easier for the SNP to manage than for Labour because Jeane Freeman, who was the minister in charge of health in Scotland, has since retired. If required, Nicola Sturgeon has nothing to lose by throwing Freeman under a bus. But it is harder for Labour because the minister in charge of health at the time, Vaughan Gething, has since been promoted.

However, while you can see how the SNP could successfully finesse the politics of attacking the Conservatives at Westminster while having made similar mistakes at Holyrood, it doesn’t change the fact that in policy terms, it’s simply very difficult to make the case that the distinct problem in England was the performance of the Health Secretary, unless your argument is that the SNP’s cabinet secretary for health and Welsh Labour’s minister for health were also useless liars.

[see also: How the UK’s care homes were abandoned to coronavirus]

It is generally true in politics that if it is in neither the interest of the government or the opposition parties to touch a particular issue, that issue will generally be ignored. The treatment of the UK’s care homes may well be one such issue. That said, given that there is an asymmetric focus on what happens in England over what happens in Scotland and Wales, you can easily see how the records of Freeman and Gething might not be enough to save Hancock. 

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But I suspect Boris Johnson might be very worried that the end of Hancock would mean the end of him shortly afterwards. At present, voters are generally of the view that a) the vaccine roll-out has been handled very well but b) that the pandemic in general and lockdown in particular were handled poorly. If I were Johnson, I would be very, very worried that firing my Health Secretary sent a signal to voters that, actually, I had handled it uniquely badly, that my record was worse than that of the Scottish or Welsh governments, and this might be a moment from which my government would struggle to ever recover. That dispensing with Hancock might do this, just as the exit of seven comparatively obscure backbenchers did what no small number of explicit pro-Brexit statements from the Labour leadership did and inspire an exodus of Remain voters from the Labour tent in February 2019, means it’s a risk that I shouldn’t take.

[see also: Why did voters end up with the terrible choice of Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Corbyn?]