Matt Hancock finds himself at the centre of the fallout from Dominic Cummings’ select committee appearance after he was the subject of some of the most damning criticisms and serious allegations. The Prime Minister’s former chief adviser told MPs that the Health Secretary should have been fired for “at least 15 to 20 things” and alleged that he lied to Boris Johnson and colleagues over the testing of hospital patients being discharged into care homes, which Hancock strenuously denies.
The Health Secretary is fighting back this morning, putting this denial on the record in the House of Commons following an urgent question by Labour, emphasising the challenges of an “unprecedented” pandemic but insisting that “throughout, we have been straight with people”. Jeremy Hunt, the chair of the health select committee, rode to Hancock’s defence in the chamber, noting that Cummings has yet to provide evidence of these allegations and that they therefore remain “unproven”, and then asking a question on the Indian Covid variant, a not-so-subtle way of echoing Hancock’s own line of defence: that this pandemic isn’t over, that there are still serious challenges to grapple with, and that this is no time to be speculating over the Health Secretary’s future.
It is already a tragic matter of record that Covid testing wasn’t carried out on people being discharged from hospitals and into care homes, leading to thousands of deaths among some of the most vulnerable people in our society. But the sad truth is that the conversation within Westminster is not dwelling so much on the grim failings detailed yesterday, as the personal fight that Hancock faces today and the destabilising effect of Cummings’ testimony on internal cabinet dynamics. The testimony yesterday spoke not only to a conversation about the government’s pandemic response, but to a debate over who should succeed Johnson as Conservative leader and Prime Minister.
As both Stephen Bush and Katy Balls discuss, Cummings sought yesterday to expedite the conversation over who should succeed Johnson, damning Hancock while maintaining a curious silence about Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove. It means that Cummings has rocked the government, not only through a series of survivable but difficult bombshells, but by planting a longer-term seed of speculation to destabilise Johnson’s premiership.