Matt Hancock isn’t a funny nerd: he’s a shameless operator who happens to have an app

What do we think he’s been offered then, lads? Foreign sec?

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It feels strange to find myself furious with Matt Hancock. He isn’t an ideological headbanger. He doesn’t specialise in vicious attacks on his opponents. Consequently, he’s never been a man to inspire even the slightest hint of passion: getting angry with him feels a bit like getting angry with some vanilla ice cream or the colour beige. Where would you find the energy?

But this morning, Hancock did something which not only made me angry, but also inspired an even more unlikely emotion: sympathy for Piers Morgan. In an interview on Good Morning Britain, Hancock repeatedly refused to say whether he thought the UK’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, should be fired.

Darroch’s crime, if you’ve not been following, was to criticise the Trump administration as “dysfunctional”, “unpredictable” and “inept” in leaked emails to the Foreign Office. An impartial observer might note that honesty about the state of a foreign government was not merely no breach of the diplomat’s professional duties, but actually integral to them.

Matt Hancock, though, did not say that. He chose instead to waffle on about the importance of “the special relationship”, while Morgan looked increasingly baffled. We probably shouldn’t connect the two events – Hancock is not, yet, that important – but Darroch has since resigned.  

So why is wet, centrist, Remain-y Matt Hancock – a guy who as recently as three weeks ago was pitching himself as a One Nation candidate for the Tory leadership – suddenly unable to defend a public servant’s right to do their job in the face of some dummy-spitting from Donald Trump? Let’s check his tweets for clues:

Clear from the #ITVDebate that @BorisJohnson is best placed to deliver Brexit #BackBoris

— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) July 9, 2019

What do we think he’s been offered then, lads? Foreign sec?

Again, all this feels weird: Hancock isn’t a man you get angry with. He’s the guy who launched a smartphone app to update constituents on his activities, and named it after himself. (You can literally talk to other Matt Hancock fans about Matt Hancock on Matt Hancock.) He tweets videos of himself doing parkour. His nickname is “Matty Moo Moos” for heaven’s sake. His vibe isn’t cynical Machiavel, it’s lovable dork.

Except, as Boris Johnson could tell you, repackaging your ruthless pursuit of power as something cuddlier is quite a Machiavellian strategy in itself, and there are plenty of signs this is exactly what Hancock has done. He was chief of staff to shadow chancellor George Osborne by the tender age of 27, during which time, according to Andrew Gimson’s Conservative Home profile, shadow ministers commented on his hunger for power. A civil servant later described him as “devoid of principle, transparently ambitious and pleased with himself beyond measure”, a line tragically absent from the promotional material for the Matt Hancock app.

He was an MP at 31; a minister at 34. After the 2016 Brexit referendum, as Theresa May and her advisors set about culling every Cameroon from the government, Hancock, despite his closeness to the now-sacked Osborne, miraculously managed to survive, after backing May early in the leadership race. Within 18 months he was in the cabinet, first as culture secretary and, later, health secretary. 

In government he’s endlessly deployed buzz phrases such as “digital transformation”. But while his enthusiasm and ability to make stuff happen is undoubted, whether that stuff is in any way good is not. Hancock is the guy who gave us the looming “porn block” policy, which aims to stop underage users accessing pornography but has the unfortunate side-effect of keeping the government in the loop about your taste in porn. He’d probably have wrought similar damage at the Department for Heath if events hadn’t overtaken him first: as one policy expert told Sky’s technology correspondent Rowland Manthorpe: “The consequences of him playing in DCMS aren’t that serious. The consequences of him turning the NHS into an app are incredibly grave.”

In other words, this is a guy who has been utterly ruthless about climbing the ladder, but doesn’t seem to have a particularly firm grasp on what to do when he gets to the top. And hardly anyone has noticed, because he’s a funny nerd with an app. No wonder he’s come out for Boris Johnson.

There is more than one way to judge someone’s fitness for office. Their ideas are one; their character is quite another, and sometimes you can respect a politician even while thinking they’re wrong. That’s why those who responded to the recent breakout of Rory-mania by pointing out that the International Development Secretary held some extremely Tory positions had missed the point. Rory Stewart may be a Tory – but unlike his rivals for the party leadership, he’s a Tory still on this plane of reality, who has some sense that a prime minister needs to represent people who aren’t Tories, too.

Hancock has chosen a different path. His ideas may sometimes look wet and centrist. But he’s proven willing to toss them aside, to back a man who has abandoned liberalism and indulged in the worst excesses of culture war politics, all in the hope of preferment.

Perhaps he will be given the big government job he so clearly craves. But his manner of getting it shows he doesn’t deserve it.

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. He writes the Evening Call newsletter. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.