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20 under 40: Matthew Hancock

Age: 32
Conservative, West Suffolk

It takes a certain level of brash confidence to use a question on the floor of the House of Commons to plug your own book. On 6 September, in a debate supposedly about VAT, Matt Hancock asked the Chancellor whether he agreed that revelations contained in Alistair Darling’s memoir showed that the previous government were masters of nothing. Cue knowing sniggers on the Tory benches, because Masters of Nothing is the title of a volume on the banking crisis, co-authored by Hancock. There followed an unctuous acknowledgement from George Osborne, who is the MP’s political patron. All very chummy. The exchange captured why Hancock is recognised as a rising star in the Tory ranks – and why he is just as widely resented for it.

In very few words, the young member for West Suffolk promoted himself, sucked up to the Treasury boss and trashed Labour, which are the three things he loves to do most in politics. That he is good at all of them, no one denies. Hancock is clever, fluent and often witty. His manner, in the Commons and in private, flirts with the line between rakish charm and breathtaking arrogance.

The attitude is both bred and earned. Hancock comes from a well-off family of entrepreneurs in rural Cheshire, went to public school and studied PPE at Oxford (where he joined the Conservative Party), followed by a Master’s degree in economics at Cambridge. He was briefly an economist at the Bank of England before being snapped up to work as an adviser to Osborne in 2005, becoming his chief of staff shortly thereafter. He won the West Suffolk seat easily in 2010 and lives in the constituency with his wife and two children.

Once in parliament, he was elected to the powerful public accounts committee, famed for its diligence in chiding government for bad spending decisions. Now Hancock must sit on the back benches for a seemly period to acquire gravitas before he can plausibly be brought into government.

To hasten the process, he co-wrote Masters of Nothing with his fellow MP Nadhim Zahawi. The account of the 2007/2008 banking crisis focused on the irrational side of human nature. This chimes sweetly with two of Downing Street’s faddish preoccupations. One is bashing the banks without regulating them too much; the other is an obsession with behavioural psychology as a tool of policymaking.

This knack for zeitgeist-surfing will serve Hancock well. So will his unerring ability to provide pithy quotes for arbitrary Labour-baiting stories that show up in the Daily Mail of the “Ed Balls stomps on kitten” variety.

Hancock likes the game of politics and he is good at it. His weakness is that it shows too much. But with a friend and mentor in Osborne, he is bound to go a long way. Journalists and MPs alike watch Hancock for insights into his guru. The assumption is that the young and indiscreet protégé still sometimes says aloud what Osborne is only thinking.

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Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister