Serious questions remain for Matt Hancock despite resignation as replacement Sajid Javid says "top p
Alain Tolhurst @Twitter
Another blissfully quiet week in British politics then. Westminster is still reeling from The Sun’s marmalade dropper on Friday morning, Matt Hancock is out and Sajid Javid in at the department for health and social care.
It had been a tough few weeks for the now-ex health secretary, machine-gunned by Dominic Cummings at a select committee hearing, then repeatedly targeted by Boris Johnson’s former advisor from the bully pulpit of his Substack.
But despite being a continued lightning rod for anger from those who want to see an end to remaining coronavirus restrictions, he appeared to be safe at least for the time being as Johnson looked to delay the long-discussed reshuffle again into the autumn and maybe even beyond.
And even after the “steamy clinch at his Whitehall office” with his aide Gina Coladangelo was revealed it was clear he felt he could go on in his role: a statement released on Friday were the words of somebody who thought they could draw a line under the matter and move past it.
Hancock was helped by the official line coming out of Number 10, as the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson told the media, repeatedly, his apology for breaching social guidelines was accepted and the matter was closed.
But it wasn’t then, and it still isn’t now despite the resignation in the intervening period, and many serious questions remain about the goings on in Victoria Street.
Not least the ones raised by a report in The Sunday Times that Hancock routinely used a private email account to conduct government business, in the newspaper’s words: “Concealing information from his own officials and potentially the public."
More will need to be said about Coladangelo’s hiring as a non-executive director at the health department, and her former role as an advisor, to Hancock - having been first listed in the Parliamentary register of secretaries in early 2019 under her married name Gina Tress.
Another minister in the department - Lord Bethell - now faces an investigation by the standards watchdog over sponsoring a parliamentary pass for Coladangelo despite her never working for the hereditary peer and former chair of Hancock’s failed Tory leadership campaign.
But most importantly of all, is where did this story come from in the first place? Glen Owen in the Mail on Sunday has a great explainer on the geography of Hancock’s office and the how the footage of the pair was secretly recorded by a member of health department staff, who then approached lockdown sceptics for help in selling the incendiary footage to the media.
He suggests the camera has been there since 2017, but that seems to be news to lots of MPs and ministers, and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis, given the unenviable task of taking on this morning bird cast round, said questions about security needed answering.
He told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "The department of health will be investigating this, quite rightly, to understand how this was able to happen. Put aside what's on the pictures, the fact that it was leaked at all is something they do need to investigate.”
Hancock’s predecessor Jeremy Hunt told the same programme it was "completely unacceptable" ministers were being filmed inside their offices, suggesting it was something “our intelligence agencies will want to look at very, very carefully”.
The chair of the health select committee said the leak of the footage had "possibly" been a breach of the Official Secrets Act, adding: "We have, rightly in this country as a democracy, as an open society, protection for whistleblowers who find things out and release them in the public interest and we don't want to undermine that, it's very important part of how we work.
"But I do think we need to understand how this happened, and to make sure that ministers are secure in their offices, to be able to have conversations that they know aren't going to be leaked to hostile powers."
After the news Hancock may be entitled for a £16,000 ‘golden goodbye’ for leaving the Cabinet, Labour are pushing for him to be stripped off the payment. Shadow housing secretary Lucy Powell told Sky News people would be "appalled to think that there's going to be a severance payment to Matt Hancock in this circumstance”.
She also said police should investigate, confirming her colleague the Labour MP Fleur Anderson had referred the matter to the Met, saying Hancock “was actually in two bubbles at the same time”, and there are “serious issues here which need further investigation”.
Labour are also asking why it took until Saturday afternoon for the minister to resign, and why Johnson did not simply remove him from office. Powell said it shows the PM "has a very dangerous blind spot when it comes to issues of integrity and conduct in public life".
It is true Johnson is reticent to swing the axe himself, keeping Cummings in post after the Barnard Castle incident, while Priti Patel, Robert Jenrick, Gavin Williamson and Hancock himself have all survived scrapes where previous ministers might have got the sack.
The PM has tried not to set the bar for what gets you removed from his administration, and in the end he didn’t have to as Hancock - eventually - fell on his sword, support having drained away in public and private, leaving his position untenable.
He leaves behind a bulging in-tray at the health department for his successor, the vastly-experienced Javid, but Labour have already been on the attack. Jon Ashworth called the former Chancellor an "architect of austerity” and said making him health secretary is akin to "putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop”.
The British Medical Association’s council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul told Sky News Javid faces a "baptism of fire”, with long backlogs in care, staff shortages, a mental health crisis and a most importantly a plan for social care.
Hunt put it starkly, when asked how long his old colleague has to fix the crisis, he replied: “Six months, because the Government have said they will do it by the end of this year, and I know Sajid will want to honour that promise."
In his first public appearance as health secretary Javid has said his "most immediate priority" will be ending the coronavirus pandemic as soon as possible. Entering the department this morning he said: "I just want to start by saying I think Matt Hancock worked incredibly hard, he achieved a lot, and I'm sure he will have more to offer in public life.
"I was honoured to take up this position. I also know that it comes with a huge responsibility and I will do everything I can to make sure that I deliver for this great country. We are still in a pandemic and I want to see that come to an end as soon as possible and that will be my most immediate priority."