Matt Hancock was a strong contender for the adjective “beleaguered” even before grainy pictures of him snogging an old college friend he’d employed at taxpayers’ expense were splashed all over the Sun on Friday morning.
When the Queen was filmed making small talk with Boris Johnson as their weekly audiences resumed in person on Wednesday, she told the prime minister she had been speaking to “your secretary of state for health, poor man”.
In recent days, Hancock had also had to brush off private messages from the prime minister published by Dominic Cummings in which he was derided as “totally fucking hopeless” and deny lying to colleagues so frequently and outrageously that the politically neutral cabinet secretary wanted him sacked.
Defending himself against those allegations in the House of Commons last month, he said: “I have been straight with people in public and private throughout. Every day I have got up and asked: ‘What must I do to protect life?’ That is the job of a health secretary in a pandemic.”
Friday’s leaked pictures suggest he also had time to think about other matters – yet, like Cummings when his Barnard Castle jaunt emerged, Hancock has opted to try to tough it out, apologising for breaching social distancing guidelines and asking for privacy to deal with “this personal matter”.
Colleagues confirmed that was very much in character. Politicians don’t tend to be burdened with crushing self-doubt, but even among MPs, Hancock is renowned for his Teflon-coated self-regard.
And even in a cabinet that includes Gavin Williamson, rehabilitated by Johnson after allegedly leaking state security secrets to the Telegraph, and Priti Patel, brought back after organising secret meetings in Israel, he stands out as an extraordinary survivor.
Hancock’s backstory is hardly an unusual one for a Conservative minister. His parents set up a small tech business, and he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, where he took a first-class degree, before going to Cambridge to do a master’s in economics.
It was at Oxford where he met his wife, Martha – and also Gina Coladangelo, the woman he has been snapped embracing in his Department of Health office.
She told Radio 4’s Profile that they were “close friends of more than 20 years” who had met when Hancock was reporting on sport for the student radio station Oxygen FM and she was reading the news.
Coladangelo revealed that Hancock was sometimes economical with the truth – saying he once overslept when he was meant to be covering a big rugby match at Twickenham, and gave his report from a phone box outside a pub.
After university, Hancock became an economist at the Bank of England before being taken on as an economic adviser by the young shadow chancellor George Osborne, eventually becoming his chief of staff. Together with another adviser, Rupert Harrison, who had been Hancock’s contemporary at Oxford, the pair successfully built up the economic narrative that Labour had failed to “fix the roof while the sun was shining”.
As their promise of a “long-term economic plan” swept Gordon Brown out of Downing Street at the May 2010 general election, Hancock arrived in the House of Commons as the MP for West Suffolk, then aged just 31. He was made a junior business minister in the coalition government in 2013.
Three years later, Hancock was on the remain side with his old boss during the Brexit referendum campaign. But unlike Osborne and Cameron, after the results came in, Hancock remained in Westminster, as the political shockwaves unleashed by the result continued to reverberate – and he has been on the frontbench ever since.
He had a short-lived stint as culture secretary from January 2018 – memorably videoing himself trying out the sport of parkour.
Just six months later, Theresa May made him health secretary, when Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary over her Brexit deal and Jeremy Hunt was given that role.
When May had to accept defeat and step aside after failing to persuade MPs to back her Brexit deal for a third time, Hancock fancied himself as her potential successor – or at least saw political advantage in having a shot at the top job.
He launched his campaign with the slogan Let’s Move Forward, handing out themed phone chargers to journalists attending a slick launch event. His backers included David Lidington, May’s serious and strongly pro-European de facto deputy, who has since left parliament.
Hancock received 20 votes from MPs in the first round. He then dropped out and later threw his weight behind the increasingly unstoppable-looking Johnson campaign, despite having been a remainer.
Hancock said at the time he had received assurances from Johnson that he would govern as a one-nation Conservative, and he praised the now prime minister lavishly in a series of media appearances.
It worked: Johnson kept him on as health secretary despite chucking out many other senior remainers and other heavyweight figures from the May years. Nine months later, Hancock found himself at the eye of the storm as the Covid crisis hit.
Since the outset of the pandemic, he has come under intense pressure, in particular over the procurement of personal protective equipment for health workers, the discharging of hospital patients into care homes and the shortcomings of the test-and-trace system.
He contracted Covid at the same time as the prime minister and other senior government figures, self-isolating at home. Johnson was later said to have joked that it’s “all right for you thinnies,” after Hancock bounced back from the virus quickly, while the prime minister found himself in intensive care.
While Johnson in hospital, Hancock was part of a “quad” of senior ministers – with Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove – who took over day-to-day decision-making.
He has tended to be among the more cautious cabinet ministers on questions of border control and lifting lockdown restrictions – arguably putting him on the right side of history when it came to making judgments about how tough to be in tackling the virus.
But he has faced mounting criticism over allegations of cronyism in handing out contracts during the scramble to procure medical equipment – including one that went to the former landlord of his local pub, the Cock Inn in Thurlow.
In recent weeks Hancock has been attacked relentlessly by Cummings, who launched yet another excoriating blogpost on Friday with the subheading: “how we got Hancocked”.
When the NHS England chief, Simon Stevens, was asked in a recent Sky News interview whether he thought the health secretary was “hopeless”, he grinned, declined to answer and slowly edged out of shot, as his aide was heard to say that the question hadn’t been agreed.
Johnson gave Hancock political air cover on Friday, perhaps not surprisingly for a prime minister who hates personal confrontation and can hardly lecture colleagues about their private lives.
Hancock has been a useful lightning rod throughout the pandemic, loyally going out to make the government’s case in endless media appearances through the toughest days of the darkest lockdowns. No 10 may worry what he would say if he were unleashed from collective responsibility to tell his own version of the story of the past two years.
But Tory MPs are becoming increasingly concerned that by throwing a protective ring around Hancock, Johnson is just contributing to the nagging sense among even some traditional Conservative voters that this is a sleazy government whose senior players believe it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us.