And just like that, one day after claiming he won't quit, he is out.
Matt Hanock, the minister charged with eradicating Britain’s biggest postwar health crisis, quit on Saturday night in the face of an avalanche of fierce criticism of his secret affair with an adviser whom he put on the public payroll.
“We have worked so hard as a country to fight the pandemic,” Hancock, 42, said in his letter of resignation to Johnson one day after pictures of him kissing and groping his top aide - a friend hired last year - at a time he forced everyone else into mandatory lockdowns were splashed on the front page of the Sun newspaper.
“The last thing I want is for my private life to distract from the single-minded approach that is leading us out of this crisis.”
Hancock's resignation came after The Sun published photos of Hancock and Gina Coladangelo, whom he’d appointed to his team, apparently embracing in his Whitehall offices last month. Initially Hancock tried to keep his job and Johnson backed him on Friday, saying the matter was closed.Initially Hancock tried to keep his job and Johnson backed him on Friday, saying the matter was closed.
But pressure continued to mount on Saturday after senior officials in Johnson’s Conservative Party said the minister’s behavior was beyond the pale, with one highlighting the hypocrisy of Hancock flouting the same rules that he helped create.
Hancock’s departure is a fresh blow for Johnson’s humiliated administration and puts a renewed focus on “sleaze” allegations - a British media shorthand for dubious actions ranging from corruption to secretive financial arrangements to sex scandals - in his party. It also means that another major offshore distraction - like sending US warships in Russian territory may be imminent.
The controversy has also destroyed any hope the UK health department has of tackling the pandemic as the affair has terminally undermined its messaging about the importance of maintaining social distancing. The latest official figures show new coronavirus cases in the U.K. have climbed to their highest level since early February, with 18,270 new infections, although at this point nobody believes any "scientific" data. And this episode surely won't help.
The prime minister will now need to hire a new health secretary and has the option of conducting a broader reshuffle of his cabinet. He will be hoping Hancock’s relatively quick exit will draw a line under the episode, minimizing the damage to his government’s reputation.
In his resignation letter, Hancock said he owed it to all the health workers, volunteers and military personnel who had worked on the U.K.’s pandemic response to resign.
He also publicly apologized to his own family. “I want to reiterate my apology for breaking the guidance, and apologise to my family and loved ones for putting them through this,” Hancock wrote. “I also need to be with my children at this time.”
It was unclear if either his wife or children wanted him to be with them at this time.
Hancock, who ran against Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019, had already been under pressure over his handling of the crisis. Johnson’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, earlier this month published text messages he said showed the premier regarded Hancock as “hopeless.” For once, BoJo may have been right. Cummings also accused Hancock of lying and incompetence at the height of the Covid outbreak last year.
As Bloomberg notes, Hancock and Coladangelo had been friends since their time together at Oxford University and both are married with children. At the time the photos were taken, pandemic rules advised against meeting people from different households indoors.
Coladangelo, a former director at lobbying firm Luther Pendragon and current shareholder, was appointed by Hancock as an unpaid adviser to the Department of Health last year. She was later made a non-executive director at the department. Hancock chairs the departmental board.
Johnson’s administration has battled various “sleaze” accusations during the pandemic, including over whether lucrative government contracts were awarded to people with connections to the Conservative Party, and whether Johnson used underhand methods to fund a refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.