Former British health minister Matt Hancock’s move to kiss goodbye to his job has thrown up a messy morass of moral issues. For a start, it throws up measures of public morality unlikely to be paralleled over any conceivably – or inconceivably – similar development around a minister in India. It appears distant from what Britain itself has known and done until recent years.
Hancock did not resign over kissing another man’s wife; he quit because he did not follow social distancing rules that he was prescribing to the rest of the country. Hancock had in fact particularly advised against hugging. Few would doubt that such a prescription would advise against hugging with a kiss thrown in.
The kiss has delivered just the kind of political upheaval that gets people talking. After a year of long lockdowns, Britain needed to cheer up with a scandal, and Hancock obliged. Tongues have been wagging (if not in the Hancock way) and cartoonists sketching. One cartoon by Matt in The Daily Telegraph has a man remarking that is no way to do a Covid swab. This was among the more polite ones.
Hancock confessed to duplicity but not of the extramarital kind: “We owe it to people who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic to be honest when we have let them down as I have done by breaching the guidance.” Hancock offered apologies “for breaching the guidance”.
He added that he apologises to his family and loved ones “for putting them through this”. He said he needs to be with his children at this time. Any wrong thought to have been done to family, including presumably his wife, was not, however, the reason for the resignation – and it was not expected to be. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had accepted Hancock’s apology before he resigned and announced the matter closed. Hancock could continue in his job. That, at least, was the publicly stated position.
Behind all the proper sounding stuff, Westminster buzzes with intrigue intended to damage and ideally to destroy. The photograph of Matt Hancock kissing his aide Gina Coladangelo was leaked to The Sun a full six weeks after the kiss. The footage that recorded the kiss would have been logged in straight away, and security staff would have made senior bureaucrats within the ministry aware of it. It’s hard to see a bunch of senior officials keep that to themselves and not inform their colleagues in the Prime Minister’s office.
Some officials are now calling the whole affair a security breach and demanding an apology. Kissing is one thing, to be seen kissing another. The Sun says it got the footage from a well-meaning Whitehall whistleblower, and published it because it “deserved a wider audience”.
Well-meaning or not, Westminster is now buzzing with speculation on who leaked the picture. It’s being suggested that the video footage may have been leaked to The Sun by someone at 10 Downing Street. The leak came just days after the controversial former aide to Boris Johnson Dominic Cummings revealed correspondence in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke of Hancock as “f***ing hopeless”.
Boris Johnson’s office did not deny he said that. Hancock went public to say he did not mind because people say all sorts of things under stress. A few days later the Queen spoke of Hancock as “poor man”. Nobody is suggesting she spoke under stress.
Hancock has been seen as a lot worse than the labels stuck on him by his Prime Minister and Queen. He’s been targeted for long over mishandling of the pandemic last year that led to thousands of deaths that could have been avoided. He’s been under fire not least from MPs from the opposition and his own party too, and from investigation committees. Britain has seen 128,089 Covid deaths as of the end of last week, proportionately hugely more than most other countries. Delayed lockdowns were blamed for most of the deaths.
The No. 10 leak theory suggests that publication of that picture was certain to provoke a resignation that would avoid any need for sacking Hancock. It suited anyone who wanted to see Hancock out. The Prime Minister had after all said, rather plainly, what he thought of his health minister.
Questions continue to rise all around that misplaced kiss. Hancock had picked his own office space to plant it on his colleague; nobody is unaware that cameras abound everywhere in office buildings, and that such a kiss could never remain secret. In an odd way, the kiss that ruined Hancock’s political career may have saved his image. Better a playboy than a “poor man” who is “f***king hopeless at his job.”
But a further moral issue underlies the decision by Hancock to appoint Gina Coladangelo, who he has known since his university days, to the health committee that then brought her into his camera-infested office corridors. She seemed to have no particular qualification for the position but had the job on close to a thousand pounds a day up to a maximum of 15,000 pounds for the year. Not bad, even for the millionaire she is.