Matt Hancock was always going to have to resign, after those already-notorious pictures of him embracing a colleague on taxpayers’ time emerged on Friday morning. The question now troubling senior Tories, is why didn’t Boris Johnson sack him.
Johnson had weathered several previous scandals by sending his spokesman out to say, “the prime minister considers the matter closed”, including Priti Patel’s alleged bullying and Robert Jenrick’s relations with a Tory-supporting property developer.
Yet this time was always going to be different: not only had Hancock had been pictured breaking the very rules he had been urging the public to comply with; he was the government’s key communicator of public health messages.
Next time he appeared at the podium in the £2.6m Downing Street briefing room, he would have been peppered with questions about his own breach of lockdown guidance – and about other murkier matters such as how and when Gina Coladangelo had been brought into his department.
And worst of all for the government, the scandal combined two messages the opposition parties have been trying to make stick for months – that this government is “sleazy” and that its principals the rules they are urging the public to follow don’t apply to them.
Hancock’s position was clearly untenable on Friday morning – yet Johnson chose to try to protect him.
Keir Starmer’s response to Hancock’s resignation – “Matt Hancock is right to resign. But Boris Johnson should have sacked him” – shows Labour now hopes to make the prime minister pay a political price for his failure to act more decisively.
Even Johnson’s defenders say he tends to skirt confrontation and struggles to deliver difficult messages.
The former Vote Leave director Chris Montgomery wrote in the Critic magazine about Johnson struggling to dismiss a member of staff at the Spectator.
“Boris wanted to remove someone. Boris couldn’t do this himself. His stratagems over the course of months trying included wondering aloud to his would-be victim: ‘You’ll have a private income of course?’ (‘No Boris,’ the victim flatly replied, ‘I work because I need the money’). The victim found that their desk was moved to ever more remote corners of Doughty Street.”
Eventually, Montgomery recalled, Johnson brought his children into the office on the day appointed for the bad news to be delivered, and then “scarpered”, leaving a colleague to deliver the bad news in the pub.
Dominic Cummings claimed that in cabinet meetings, “as soon as things get ‘a bit embarrassing’ [Johnson] does the whole ‘let’s take it offline’ shtick before shouting ‘Forward to victory’, doing a thumbs-up and pegging it out of the room before anybody can disagree”.
Others who have worked with Johnson corroborate the fact that he recoils from dismissing colleagues.
Johnson has barely touched the make-up of his cabinet, aside from last February’s reshuffle, in which Sajid Javid was pushed out – something Cummings now claims he “tricked” Johnson into doing.
Another former colleague of Johnson’s claimed he still smarted from being sacked by Michael Howard from the opposition frontbench in 2004, over claims about his private life, which Johnson had dismissed as “an inverted pyramid of piffle”.
Perhaps in Hancock’s case, Johnson also felt it was unwise to appear to be making a judgment about a colleague’s personal conduct, given his own well-known record on marital infidelity. And perhaps, too, he hoped Hancock could continue to act as a lightning rod for criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Yet the danger for No 10 in this weekend’s events is that Johnson’s failure to sack Hancock revives the perception of the prime minister as someone who turns a blind eye to his mates’ misdemeanours that built up in the wake of the Cummings scandal (back when he and his then chief adviser still were mates).
And it may also underline a sense that in contrast to his gung-ho public persona, the prime minister is indecisive, even a “ditherer,” a charge he likes to chuck at Starmer across the floor of the House of Commons.
One former cabinet minister, who campaigned across a string of marginal constituencies in the 2019 general election, said even in the red wall seats the Tories triumphantly gained, voters “don’t much love Boris” – but they loathed Jeremy Corbyn and wanted a government that would enact Brexit.
And even before this weekend, defeat in Chesham and Amersham suggested some traditional Tory voters may already have come to the conclusion they disapprove of the way Johnson is running the country – campaigners said cronyism came up on the doorsteps.
Former Downing Street pollster James Johnson pointed out on Twitter this weekend that last November and December, before the vaccine bounce, perceptions about Johnson in focus groups were very poor – he was seen as “weak, run by his advisers, a mess”.
One “big thing”, he said, could bring those perceptions back to the surface, as the joy of the jab starts to fade. It is unclear whether failing to sack the rule-breaking health secretary could be that thing – but the excruciating images that accompanied Hancock’s humiliation seem highly likely to help it stick in voters’ minds.