Matt Hancock is better at politics than he looks

Portraying himself as Mr Digital allows the Health Secretary and one-time app designer to draw the political sting from unfriendly cabinet briefs.

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Matt Hancock. Isn’t he funny? For some in Westminster, the fresh-faced Health Secretary is a running joke. They have several punchlines at their disposal, chiefly the eponymous app he launched as culture secretary in February. 

There is no escaping the jibes. “Couldn't ask for a better successor than @matthancock to take forward long term NHS plan with his brilliant understanding of the power of technology,” Jeremy Hunt tweeted upon his appointment. “The new NHS app will be in safe hands!”

Indeed, Hancock gives his first major speech today and the subject matter will doubtless fuel new gags along these lines: the Telegraph reveals that he will call on doctors and nurses to ditch pagers in favour of special smartphone apps. The argument is obviously one of merit – more than one in ten of the world’s pagers are used in the NHS, and the technology is as time consuming as it is dated.

You might ask why, faced with the most challenging cabinet brief any Tory could be given, the pre-briefed lines from Hancock's speech basically amount to self-parody? The answer is that doing so is as much a calculated political decision as it is a product of quixotic enthusiasm.

Portraying himself as “Mr Digital” first and foremost, I’m told by a source who worked closely with Hancock at DCMS, is his strategy for dealing with tricky briefs and defusing relations with interest groups who are predisposed to hate a Tory secretary of state – of which there are no shortage in the cultural world or the NHS.

In generating goodwill, the thinking goes, it greases the wheels ahead of harder jobs – like his much less prominently reported ambition to “reset the relationship between the government and NHS staff”. Whether the logic can hold at health as it did at culture is a live question and it is probably unwise to bet on it being answered in the affirmative. But should Hancock succeed in that objective, he will have Mr Digital to thank. 

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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