So Long Matt Hancock

Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.
Now, mark me how I will undo myself.

Richard II, Act 4, Scene 1

It’s rare these days to wake up filled with a sense of joy, not at the sight of a personal tragedy that has just destroyed two families, but at the prospect of moving on at last. Writing as a historian, if you’ll forgive the conceit, is a familiar experience seeing one’s cynicism effortlessly vindicated, especially when it comes to the shenanigans in the corridors of power.

I’m not going to pour foul scorn on our former Health Secretary. Anyone can make a terrible mistake and become embroiled in an affair with a university friend one has employed in the same office, even if both are married and have three children apiece. Goodness me, it must be the easiest thing in the world to trip oneself up like that. And what’s more, especially easy to do so at the very time you’ve been exhorting the rest of the country change their lives out of recognition in an effort to thwart a virus.

But it wouldn’t do to be too self-righteous. Many of us have broken the rules in some way or another from the start, even those who have convinced themselves they have been following the charter to the letter.

Diogenes the Cynic went around in daylight holding a lantern. When asked why, he replied: “I’m looking for an honest man.”

If anything, I’m grateful for this debacle. The only prospect for a government and its ministers once in power is losing power. It’s reassuring to see the forces of fate take their inevitable course, and always just a question of time. Very few have power taken from them. Most often, consumed by their own hubris, they throw it away. And here we are again, something we can rely on to obstruct the relentless march towards totalitarianism. But this time the own goal takes on a very particular new tone because of the present supercharged context and casual and complacent hypocrisy at the centre of the nation’s leadership.

As ever, the apology was a fascinating tactic. Had he not been caught, would he have spontaneously announced his tryst and apologised? Of course not. He’d have carried on with the assumption he was getting away with it.

The truth of course is that the Government, despite some of its very remarkable achievements and initiatives of the last 15 months, also imposed dramatic and ultimately impossible pressures on its own members, advisers, and the rest of the population. Sometimes, self-destruction is the only means of escape. The former Health Secretary had constructed a compensatory image of himself as someone devoted night and day to saving lives and exhorting the nation to participate in his righteous crusade and turn every aspect of human existence towards one end. He knew he could not possibly live up to that, as he teetered along the edge of a cliff. I’m not surprised he became overwhelmed and found solace in other, more human, comforts, however clumsy and ill-advised.

The Prime Minister’s support of his minister was only to be expected. How could he do anything else? To have condemned the former Heath Secretary would have automatically turned the searchlight back on himself. It’s the best way to vindicate one’s own behaviour, or at any rate divert attention from it. Inevitably, the Cabinet lickspittles rallied round with their characteristic short-termism to add their chorus of approval for shutting the matter down, apart from trying to turn it into a question of national security. Patriotism, especially that brand of cod-patriotism, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson so pithily observed. Fortunately, large swathes of the Conservative Party took a different view.

The shabby corralling of support was a self-inflicted, if unintentional, momentary conspiracy to unravel the Government’s collective authority. For the cynic it was a golden moment, to say nothing of the joy exhibited by the tabloid hacks handed this feast upon a plate. The Government will totter on and plenty of people will say it doesn’t matter what a Health Secretary gets up to in his private life, even if it is being conducted on the office clock at public expense. But that’s not the same as managing and maintaining prestige and authority. This latest escapade comes on the back of the G7 cronies living it up on the beach and enjoying a barbecue, to say nothing of the international travel involved.

Are we at a turning point? Yes, we probably are. There comes a time to say a quick goodnight and quietly fade away. A person made of sterner stuff than anyone in this administration of career mediocrities would have recognised immediately when the moment had come. Instead, we were treated for another day to the tawdry sight of a reptile grimly trying to cling on to the greasy ladder of power after first caking his hands in melted butter.

There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.

Sun Tzu

However, the former Health Secretary has done us all a favour. The Government came to power with only one idea and was forced by circumstances to replace it with another single idea: the war against the virus. Now that ideology has been permanently punctured and the hostages to fortune exposed. It’s unlikely, at least for the moment, that any other Government ministers, especially the new Health Secretary, and their sanctimonious advisers will depict themselves as saviours and risk being caught falling short.

This has all come at a time when the Government message has been subtly changing. The financial and all the other terrible costs of the Virus War are beginning to emerge. We are going to have to live not only with Covid but also some deaths and serious illness, which perhaps we might now have the good sense to assess alongside the deaths and sickness caused by a host of other conditions that escape note most days in the Covid-obsessed media. The revelations of this indiscretion ought to serve to tell more of us that we need to rely far more on ourselves to determine our future, and not the Government.

The new mantra is ‘personal responsibility’. And it’s going to have to be. The latest Whitehall farce is a nail in the Government’s coffin for sure, though with Labour led by Captain Nemo being about as effective as a man on a soapbox at the end of Clacton Pier it’ll be a long time before the house of cards falls. In the immediate term it means the Government has shrunk a little further towards its own oblivion, retreating a step towards irrelevance and the day it and its cast drift into history.

From where I’m standing it looks like the end of the beginning and the start of a new chapter. For now, we must look to ourselves, re-emerge into the sunlit lands, reconnect with our families and friends, and take our chances. After all, that’s what some of our leaders have been busily doing for months.

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December 2023
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