When Matt Hancock appeared before two select committees last week, he emerged largely unscathed after answering explosive allegations by Dominic Cummings that he repeatedly lied to cabinet colleagues and the public during the coronavirus pandemic.
One reason was that Cummings had refused to provide the MPs with evidence to back up the claims he made to them two weeks earlier. Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark, the two committee chairs, ruled that the allegations had not been substantiated in the absence of the back-up evidence Cummings had promised them.
Today, Cummings has turned the tables on Hancock in an incendiary and characteristic 7,000-word blog. It includes a WhatsApp exchange in which Johnson appeared to tell Cummings that Hancock was “totally f***ing hopeless”. In another message, in April last year, Johnson called the position on personal protective equipment “a disaster” and said: “I can’t think of anything except taking Hancock off and putting [Michael] Gove on [PPE].”
Cummings tweeted: “Evidence on the Covid disaster: as the PM said himself, Hancock’s performance on testing, procurement, PPE, care homes etc was ‘totally f***ing hopeless’, and his account to MPs was fiction.”
He then listed a series of questions for Johnson to answer. They included: “Given his failures on testing, care homes and PPE, why did you keep in post a secretary of state you described yourself as ‘totally f***ing hopeless’ and how many more people died as a result of your failure to remove him?”
The disclosures are acutely embarrassing for Johnson as well as Hancock. They give credence to Cummings’s claim that the prime minister considered sacking Hancock in the pandemic’s early stages. Cummings suggested he should have been fired for at least 15-20 mistakes but was kept on so he could be sacrificed later to shield Johnson from criticism.
Johnson’s decision to retain a cabinet minister he believed was “useless” in a critical job during a national emergency for more than a year raises very serious questions about his judgement. When combined with claims that “soft” border controls allowed the Delta variant to come in from India and spread, which Cummings endorses, the revelations might well help Labour to revive allegations of “incompetence” that fizzled out because of the successful vaccination rollout.
The prime minister will now be asked ad nauseam about Cummings’s claim that “unlike other PMs, this one has a clear plan to leave at the latest a couple of years after the next election, he wants to make money and have fun, not ‘go on and on’.”
Johnson’s former closest adviser woundingly describes his style of handling tricky meetings: “As soon as things get ‘a bit embarrassing’, [the PM] 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.” It rings true.
Hancock has been wounded too. His authority has undoubtedly been undermined. He is very energetic and resilient, seen by Tory colleagues as a Duracell Bunny-like figure who always bounces back. Although his ambition will drive Hancock on, Cummings’s two-word label will hang round his neck like a millstone. Some mud sticks forever.
In the short term, Johnson will keep Hancock as health secretary. To move him now would vindicate Cummings’s attack and beg the question why it took Johnson so long to do it. The likelihood is that Hancock will not stay at his department when Johnson reshuffles his cabinet pack. Today’s “Dom bomb” makes that more likely to happen in the autumn than this summer. Hancock’s move could then be presented as part of a wider shake-up of the government.
In the meantime, the line for Tory MPs to take will be: portray Cummings as a bitter, sacked former employee who believes everyone else is useless and has also turned against previous bosses including Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron. They will also play the “Barnard Castle eye test” card against him. Such counterattacks will limit but not prevent the damage.