Matt Hancock, somehow still the Member of Parliament representing the constituency of West Suffolk, has been something of a tabloid feature of late.
From his rule-breaking time on the TV reality show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!”, his comments on the scandal embroiling the Conservative peer in the House of Lords, Baroness Mone, and the of threat legal action against him by a fellow Conservative MP, to the fact that he set up his own television production company, he has clocked up a range of headlines.
Throughout, from going into the jungle to when it was reported he paid less than 8% of the fee to the charity he had said he was fundraising for, he has somehow managed to stay immune from the criticism.
A change of mood
The journalist was Isabel Oakeshott, the ghost writer of both Covid Diaries and the unauthorised David Cameron biography which referenced a pig. She delivered (leaked?) her bombshell via the Daily Telegraph.
The central thrust of the initial article was that Mr Hancock, when health secretary, had ignored advice from Professor Sir Chris Whitty that all patients entering care homes should be tested. At the time Government policy was to discharge patients untested into care homes.
Rebuttal from Hancock’s camp
Oakeshott’s claims made the headlines, and a short time afterwards came the rebuttal. The BBC reported that Mr Hancock’s spokesman had accused the Telegraph of doctoring the messages by excluding a line from a text from one of his aides which “demonstrates there was a meeting at which advice on deliverability was given”.
The statement added: “By omitting this, the messages imply Matt simply overruled clinical advice. That is categorically untrue. He went as far as was possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives.” There were later reports that Mr Hancock was considering all options, including legal action.
Because the leak came from a journalist with whom Mr Hancock reputedly had a non-disclosure agreement, and these were private messages, the Information Commissioners Office has issued a statement.
“Data protection law ensures people’s personal information is used properly and fairly, including ensuring personal details are not disclosed inappropriately. But there are exemptions set out within the law, including around journalism and for literary purposes in the public interest, reflecting the importance of freedom of expression in society.
“At this stage we do not see this as a matter for the ICO but there are questions around the conditions on which departing members of government retain and subsequently use official information which need to be considered by organisations such as the Cabinet Office.
“But today’s coverage does again raise questions about the risks that the use of WhatsApp and other private channels bring, particularly around transparency. Last year, the ICO called for a review into the use of private messaging apps within government, and we would reiterate that call today. Public officials should be able to show their workings, through proper recording of decisions and through the Freedom of Information Act, to ensure that trust in those decisions is secured and lessons are learnt for the future.”
Constituents feel abandoned
Time will tell if any civil or criminal laws were broken. Yet in the words of Reality TV personality and social commentator Professor Tim Wilson, the whole situation has made the former health secretary look both greedy and cheap.
So how can we restore integrity to political service? One suggestion was offered by Adam Hills during Mr Hancock’s absence in Australia at the end of last year. When interviewed on ‘Good Morning Britain’ the day after he held a fake political surgery in Hancock’s constituency, Mr Hill agreed with the presenter Richard Madeley that the feeling was more of ‘sadness than of anger’: the residents just wanted to be ‘listened to’.
Ultimately the role of an MP is to represent, and serve their constituency, not to make a name for themselves. Perhaps all that has happened will offer a cautionary tale for those who choose to follow Mr Hancock into politics.