Something rotten at the heart of Westminster

Published by The i paper (28th June, 2021)

So farewell then, Matt Hancock, self-righteous protector of the nation’s public health in the pandemic. His career, so carefully nurtured over almost two decades climbing the greasy pole of Westminster, was unlocked with stunning speed by a snog in the office, a sneaky foe and a quick call to The Sun showing again both the fragility and toxicity of politics. His sickly resignation speech was a fitting epitaph for his time in office. Yet it is telling there is so little sympathy even on his own side for this remorselessly ambitious and energetic character, something he might reflect on as he surveys the sudden unravelling of his marriage, his family and his aspirations.

His private life is irrelevant for the rest of us, beyond perhaps sympathy for his wife and children caught in the spotlight. Yet his resignation is highly significant since it reveals much that is wrong with our political system and the shallow people who all too often rise to the top. Consider, after all, why Hancock found himself in this crucial post when the world was struck by its most devastating public health crisis for a century? The reason is simple: he was a man of such shallow principles and spinelessness that he was prepared to ditch everything he previously espoused to keep his precious seat at the Cabinet table when his party changed course.

So he posed as a liberal moderniser when David Cameron was in charge, securing the patronage of George Osborne, then stayed in post after Theresa May took over. He opposed Brexit and stood for leader as a centrist – the self-proclaimed candidate “for the future” – then flipped to back Boris Johnson’s nationalist creed when he saw the political winds changing direction. One moment Hancock was railing against proroguing Parliament, saying it meant “the end of the Conservative Party as a serious party of government” and went “against everything those men who waded onto those beaches fought and died for – and I will not have it.” The next minute, he was spewing out weasel words to back the policy.

This hustler symbolises the corrosive tribalism that demands slavish loyalty rather than compassion, ideas or leadership skills from ministers. Even in a pandemic, these people play pathetic games and fight prissy culture wars rather than reach out across the political divide and soothe divisions for sake of the nation. Bear in mind there are far worse figures still sitting around the cabinet table, such as the scandal-tinged trio of Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick. So is it any wonder we keep getting disturbing glimpses of their arrogant hypocrisy, their sense of entitlement, their incompetence and their utter contempt for the ordinary folk who fund their salaries? And is it any wonder there is such lack of faith in our political system when leaders make rules then break them with such insouciance?

These attitudes breed the cronyism that sees a serial failure such as Dido Harding lined up to become NHS chief, an aristocratic donor to Hancock’s dismal leadership campaign rewarded with a job as health minister, and the minister’s lover slid into a powerful post by his side. They use private emails and thus evade accountability. This tips over into something even more serious when Gina Coladangelo – despite extensive lobbying links – is made a departmental director.

Meanwhile her brother’s firm has won NHS contracts, just like Hancock’s sister, and we discover that the disgraced minister was not being truthful when saying he had “nothing to do” with his pint-pulling publican pal winning a pandemic contract to provide vials for Covid tests. What irony that Britain struts around the world stage lecturing developing nations on good governance when the whiff of corruption hangs so heavy over Whitehall.

Consider also that Hancock was Secretary of State for Health and Social Care before his downfall. Yet such is the low priority given to care – exposed with such deadly consequences in the pandemic – that his lengthy resignation letter banged on about the NHS yet ignored this sector that was shattered due to political failure even before Covid struck our shores. In one grotesque final insult, this politician who once posed with a badge saying “Care” gave “heartfelt and sincere” thanks to the sacrifice of his officials, pharmacists, the pharmaceutical industry, even the armed forces – but not to those underpaid carers who risked lives on the front line under his tenure. No wonder this crippled system never gets fixed while a brazen prime minister gets away with lying over his claim to possess a plan for reform.

Yet is any of this surprising in an administration headed by Boris Johnson, a man who has behaved worse in both his private and professional life than Hancock yet ended up running our country? A frequent liar, bereft of fidelity, devoid of principles and lacking even a semblance of ideology who hides his lonely hollowness behind the mask of a clown. A populist leader so insecure that he cannot abide challenge, ducks confrontation and demands obsequious allegiance. His former aide Dominic Cummings recalled how if cabinet discussions grew difficult the prime minister would “do 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”.

The first Tory MP to break ranks and call for Hancock’s departure was a Norfolk MP called Duncan Baker who said that “people in high public office and great positions of responsibility should act with the appropriate morals and ethics that come with that role.” He is absolutely right. Yet as the old Turkish saying goes, a fish rots from the head down. And this latest resignation goes far beyond Hancock’s tonsil tennis with an aide to expose the stench of decay in Downing Street and intensifying putrefaction of our entire political system.

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