Perhaps the only thing more staggering than Matt Hancock not seeing immediately that he had to resign for breaking his own Covid rules was Boris Johnson not knowing he had to sack him.
The former health secretary’s lockdown-breaching affair with an aide has rudely reminded Tories that policing everyone’s personal conduct has made their own behaviour fair game too. Britons may have grown out of their prurience but hypocrisy will always offend.
For the best of reasons the government intruded deeply into personal freedom. One need not have opposed lockdown to recognise the at-times maniacal over-reach. People were left to die alone or grieve uncomforted. New relationships were banned. Small wonder citizens rage when those rules are flouted by leaders, and Hancock upheld them with the zeal of a Spanish inquisitor. His failings were all too human but it was a humanity he denied to others.
This is the second case of a leading lockdown advocate breaking the rules. Just as the earlier breach by Johnson’s then chief strategist Dominic Cummings shifted power within government, this too will have lasting impacts; long Hancock, as it were.
The first will be to speed the retreat from the Covid restrictions. Hancock’s successor, Sajid Javid, talks of freedoms “no government should ever wish to curtail”. Many controls have already gone and ministers are determined to end almost all curbs on July 19. But even if talk of reopening being irreversible proves hasty, it is now hard to imagine future rules trespassing so far into private conduct.
Javid is probably right that the country must now learn to live with Covid but this does leave policy unmoored from the data. Even in the best scenario, allowing the virus to spread will slow the return to the workplace, lead to more deaths and foreign curbs on travel from the UK. Some yardstick is still needed on tolerable levels of hospitalisation and death, not least ahead of a winter wave.
A second effect will be on the balance of power in cabinet. Some see Javid as a potential ally for Johnson against the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the fight for extra cash for both the NHS and social care without painful tax trade-offs. That he will battle for resources is certain but there is an alternative scenario. Sunak’s primary concern is less spending than unfunded spending and Javid, an ex-chancellor, will sympathise.
On Monday, Javid stressed the need for “sustainable funding” and he is sympathetic to the idea of a new social care levy (paid by the over-40s). It is entirely possible that he and Sunak, friends and fellow-Thatcherites, could ally to secure both the extra funds and the means to pay for them. The new health secretary is not looking for a fight with his leader, but a new Sunak/Javid axis may be a force for managing the aftershocks of the pandemic while pushing the party back towards fiscal conservatism.
The third issue is the most intangible since it goes to the character of the government. Johnson allies argue that in not sacking Hancock he gave the minister time to reach his own inevitable conclusion while not giving scalps to enemies. He is also not enough of a humbug to dismiss a man for adultery.
Perhaps. Another view is that this shows a government led by Boris Johnson is incapable of enforcing standards of conduct even in the most blatant case. One of Johnson’s political strengths is his readiness to defy convention. But standards are set at the top. And, since he also stood by Cummings, this is not even a first offence. The picture being built up is of a wild west outfit (the Hole off the Mall gang perhaps) where rules are for others and if you can tough it out, then all is good. The same cavalier approach has applied to other ministerial wrongdoing and relations with party donors.
This attitude is also visible in the cascade of pals into paid yet nebulous Whitehall roles, notably Hancock’s paramour as a non-executive director at the health department. Then there is the too-casual awards of contracts to allies. In a pandemic, normal rules could not apply but the contempt for process is captured in one Cummings email demanding £530,000 for a project: “No procurement, no lawyers, no meetings, no delay please — just send immediately.”
Many Tories cheer such bureaucracy-busting as a weapon against Whitehall inertia. Yet money cannot be doled out on the whim of an adviser. That path ends in waste and fraud. Some friends are urging Johnson to use the Boardman inquiry into the Greensill scandal and the looming Standards Committee review to get ahead of future problems. Johnson is not keen on ceding power to outside bodies but more clarity around the ministerial and Whitehall codes could protect him from his carelessness.
Johnson’s disdain for constraints may not seem a threat when he is riding high. But as economic choices get harder and the goodwill drains, he will suddenly find that criticism he once swatted away is sticking.
This should not be overstated. His MPs still see him as a winner, the opposition is weak, supporters have priced in and even warmed to his cavalier style. But this week is a reminder that forbearance is not infinite. No government can get away indefinitely with looking like it thinks rules are for the little people.
Johnson’s inability to set standards and rules is in his DNA but it is a canker on the trunk of his administration. Untreated, it leads to sleaze, hubris and under-delivery. When a nemesis comes no one can say there weren’t warnings.