Society

Should We Care About Politicians’ Private Lives?

Following revelations that Matt Hancock broke social distancing rules by kissing his aide, Gina Coladangelo, the health secretary resigned from his post. But the damage to public trust had already been done

By Emma-Louise Boynton

30 June 2021
U

pon first seeing pictures of Matt Hancock snogging Gina Coladangelo – with all the boyish eagerness of a 15-year-old on a first date - I felt a pang of sympathy. Not so much for him – although… what a year – as for both of their families.

The public humiliation that is having your partner cheat on you with a colleague and then having the images revealing that infidelity plastered across every news outlet in the country is of a level I can’t quite imagine.

Hancock’s wife, Martha Hancock, is said only to have learned of the affair the night before The Sun ran its explosive cover story, when he broke the news he was leaving her. She was reportedly under the impression they were happily married.

But putting aside this stirring of pity for the partners caught up in the crosshairs of yet another Westminster scandal, the real issue is plain, and it is infuriating: Hancock’s hypocrisy. For it is not the former Health Secretary’s infidelity that is the problem so much as his flagrant abuse of the very rules he has imposed on the nation since the start of the pandemic.

The incriminating CCTV footage is said to have been taken just after 3pm on 6 May – at a time when Covid restrictions still banned indoor social gatherings of people from different households and the country was still being advised to stay two metres apart and avoid face-to-face contact.

For over a year, give or take a few months here and there, it has, technically, been illegal for single people, and couples who don’t live together, to have sex. Given that 40% of people don’t live in a couple, rising to 71% for 18- to 29-year-olds, that’s a lot of people who have been barred from intimacy for a very long time.

Strict Covid restrictions have prevented families from saying goodbye to loved ones who are dying, set restrictions on funerals and weddings, and separated families and friends for months, the list goes on.

All, as it now transpires, while the man behind these arguably draconian measures has been having an illicit affair. An illicit affair with a long-time friend he hired at the taxpayers’ expense (more on that in a moment). The double standard being enacted here is pretty intolerable.

Let us not forget too that Matt Hancock was among those who said Professor Neil Ferguson, the former government adviser on coronavirus, had to go after it was revealed he’d broken the rules during the first lockdown.

While warning the government that as many as 500,000 people could die if lockdown measures weren’t assiduously adhered to, Professor Ferguson had, it turned out, been having an affair and inviting his married lover over to his home (they’re all at it, apparently).

Hancock said in response that it would be impossible for Prof Ferguson to remain in his post. Social distancing rules “are there for everyone”, he said, and are “deadly serious”. Until, I suppose, they weren’t… for him.

In normal times, perhaps Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’s rather feeble attempt on Friday not to be drawn on the controversy by suggesting it concerned an “entirely personal matter” might have had a sliver of merit.

Empty virtual signalling

Generally, I find the moral outrage and hand-wringing that follows any personal misdemeanor(s) committed by our politicians annoying. It often feels like empty virtue signalling.

Remember when Diane Abbott was “slammed” for drinking a cocktail-in-a-can on the tube? I mean, come on. Politicians are, after all, flawed human beings just like we are, prone to hypocrisy and lapses in judgement like the rest of us.

But these are not normal times. These are times in which we’ve seen the government reach into all aspects of our lives, placing curbs on everything we do and dissolving entirely any sense of a boundary between the public versus the private when it comes to law-making. As such, the electorate has every right to expect that the sacrifices we have been collectively forced to make “for the greater good”, are sacrifices similarly being made by those creating the rules.

There can be no distinction between how a politician behaves privately (although it must be said that this incident was hardly private, given it took place in Westminster) and publicly, because that distinction is one that has not been afforded to the public. Hancock’s brazen disregard for his own social distancing rules just reinforces the idea that there is one rule for them, another rule for us.

Accusations of cronyism

It also erodes public trust in government at a time when voters’ confidence has already been chipped away at by ongoing accusations of cronyism within the Tory party – accusations in which Hancock has often been at the centre, charged with handing out lucrative government Covid contracts to friends and acquaintances.

Hancock’s neighbour, for example, former pub owner Alex Bourne, won a contract worth about £30 million to supply the government with vials used in NHS Covid tests, despite his company having no experience of producing medical supplies.

According to the National Audit Office, over half of the £18 billion spent on pandemic-related contracts was awarded without competitive tender.

That, at a time of national crisis, Hancock employed Gina Coladangelo – his old Oxford University pal and perhaps even his lover (we have yet to find out when the affair started) – as a non-executive director on £15,000 a year can only serve to further fuel the idea that Westminster is being run like a “chumocracy”, where jobs, access and big-money contracts go to those with an “in”. It compounds the view of parliament as an Old Boys’ Club.

What, in the end, makes the whole matter worse is that the Prime Minister did not immediately sack Hancock. Instead, he accepted his apology and “considered the matter closed” on Friday – a move he’s since tried to row back on by suggesting on Monday that he had actually asked him to go.

Had Hancock not summoned some vestigial sense of culpability for his actions and handed in his resignation on Saturday, it feels not unreasonable to imagine a scenario in which he stayed on as health secretary, ”nothing to see here” style. It speaks to a culture of impunity within Westminster that appears a central tenet of Johnson's Leadership.

Before Hancock’s scandalous misconduct, a number of ministers have behaved in a manner that, under any other Prime Minister, would surely have been grounds for sacking, but under Johnson were met with reprieve.

Home Secretary Priti Patel for example, was found to have bullied civil servants she worked with, and the government was forced to pay her former permanent secretary £340,000 in compensation, while Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, oversaw an exams fiasco that affected tens of thousands of pupils. Both of them remain in the cabinet. It makes you wonder what a minister would have to do for Johnson to give them the boot.

In the Prime Minister’s response to Hancock’s resignation letter, he thanked the departing health secretary for all he had achieved in office.

Overlooking entirely the disastrous shortage of PPE, costly failures with NHS Test and Trace and huge loss of life in social care homes that have happened on Hancock’s watch, Johnson suggested the door remains firmly open for the departing minister’s return to cabinet one day.

“I am grateful for your support,” he wrote. “And believe that your contribution to public service is far from over.”

The former British politician, Enoch Powell, famously noted that “all political lives… end in failure”. Whether this will be Hancock’s final great failure on the frontline of British politics remains to be seen. But the part he has played in eroding public trust at a time of national crisis will surely not be forgotten.

The Short Stack

The scandal that led the Health Secretary to resign has eroded public trust in government. Why is there one rule for ministers and another for the rest of us?

By Emma-Louise Boynton

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