Sex, Lies and Videotape: Has cronyism finally had its comeuppance?

So Matt Hancock has gone at last. With spectacular irony – and cringe-inducing hypocrisy – the Health Secretary was caught on CCTV in a clinch with his advisor, Gina Coladangelo, breaking his own rules on social distancing as well as publicly cheating on his wife.

Hancock has avoided resignation or sacking many times before. In February, he was found to have “breached his legal obligation” over the late publication of contracts, but he refused to apologise and said he would “breach the law again if needed.” In May, Dominic Cummings singled out Hancock for particular censure, asserting that he should have been fired on 15 to 20 previous occasions, for failing to protect care homes, lying repeatedly, and not meeting testing targets, among other offences. Hancock denied all these accusations.

Most recently, Hancock played down the revelation that Boris Johnson had called him “useless” and “f***ing hopeless” earlier in the pandemic, saying, “it doesn’t matter.” And at first it looked like Hancock would, yet again, manage to hold onto his post because the prime minister backed him, stating that he’d “accepted his apology” and “considered the matter closed.” It was only the unrelenting outcry from MPs, the public, and the media, that finally forced Hancock’s hand into “doing the decent thing” and resigning.

A Led By Donkeys poster in the Cotswolds highlighting government hypocrisy with the photo still of Matt Hancock in a clinch with advisor
Another poster – this one in the Cotswolds – from Led By Donkeys

Hypocrisy and cronyism

While some expressed moral outrage, most people were more upset by the hypocrisy shown by the Health Secretary in brazenly breaking the social distancing guidelines that he himself had set, especially when so many who have lost loved ones to Covid had stuck to the rules. And it was only a year ago that Hancock called for Professor Neil Ferguson to be prosecuted for meeting his lover during lockdown restrictions. Without question, this has been the biggest example of one law for ‘them’ and another for the people since Dominic Cummings drove to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown “to test his eyesight” and subsequently refused to resign.

Even more serious, in my view, are the questions raised about how Gina Coladangelo came to be appointed to this senior position in the Department of Health. She was first taken on as an unpaid aide, before being given a taxpayer-funded £15,000 per year (for working only around 15 days annually) non-executive directorship in September 2020, an appointment made directly by Hancock himself. The fact that the two were old university friends should have raised questions, though the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has claimed correct procedures were followed. Unfortunately, the whole affair smacks of the cronyism which has been a central feature of Hancock’s dealings as Health Secretary during the pandemic.

As well as the “chumocracy” revealed by the contracts awarded to an array of Tory donors and cabinet ministers’ contacts through a VIP lane, there have been examples even closer to home. Hancock’s former neighbour and publican, Alex Bourne, secured £30 million in funding for producing test tubes, despite having no previous experience of doing so. Bourne had contacted Hancock on a personal WhatsApp account and through texts and emails. When Hancock subsequently removed a photo of Bourne’s pub from his office wall, it only served to further fuel to the story. The more recent revelation that both Hancock and his deputy, Lord Bethell, used personal emails to conduct official work has given rise to calls by Labour’s Angela Rayner for an official investigation.

Hancock has form when it comes to not declaring personal interests. It only emerged in May that he and his sister have shares in Topwood Ltd., which won a £300,000 NHS contract. Though Hancock finally declared his shares in the firm in March, he failed to mention his sister’s directorship. Meanwhile, Gina Coladangelo’s brother Roberto is an executive director at Partnering Health Ltd, which has also received a number of NHS contracts, although the firm insists it has never benefitted from a connection with the former Health Secretary and has only acquired funding through “rigorous processes.”  But clearly, the fallout from Hancock’s newly exposed affair with his colleague continues.

Further questions to answer

Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer said there are  “serious questions” for Boris Johnson to answer about the “potential abuse of public money” in Coladangelo’s appointment, adding: “The resignation is far from the end of the matter.” And the former private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, Caroline Slocock, queried Coladangelo’s qualifications to advise on health and social care, commenting: “To get your mistress marking your homework is not acceptable.” Even some Tory MPs continue to express concern about how Coladangelo came to take up this influential role, which included accompanying Hancock to a G7 health meeting. Catherine Haddon, of the Institute for Government, stated that there are many unresolved issues about how publicly funded government advisers are appointed and the access they get to ministers.

The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is now weighing up whether to hold an inquiry into ministers’ use of personal emails to conduct official business, asserting: “It is an important principle of government transparency and accountability.” Boris Johnson appears to have contradicted the government’s own rules by saying the practice is allowed as long as emails are copied to an official email address, and has not denied doing the same himself.

However, the Justice Secretary admitted that the use of personal emails by Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell is a “huge security issue”.

The Good Law Project, which won the judicial review against Hancock’s department for “failure to comply with the Transparency Policy” over contract procurement, has just published emails showing Lord Bethell used his personal emails to conduct business about contracts. Angela Rayner is calling for his dismissal, as are other opposition MPs and some Conservative backbenchers, after Lord Bethell failed to turn up at the House of Lords to answer questions. He has also been referred to the standards watchdog for sponsoring Coladangelo’s security pass despite the fact that she never worked directly for him (which is against the rules).

There are also unanswered questions about how the CCTV camera was put in Matt Hancock’s office without his knowledge and the possible security breach involved in that (also how the footage was leaked to The Sun and by whom). But this should not divert attention from the myriad alarming issues about how contracts have been awarded and business conducted at the Department of Health under Matt Hancock’s leadership. As Tim Durrant from the Institute for Government writes, the Hancock affair has done more than bring down one of Johnson’s senior cabinet members. It has exposed serious failures in the system of government appointments and laid bare the troubling picture of a prime minister who is either unable or unwilling to uphold standards in public office.  Either way, it reflects badly on Johnson and his government, and does not bode well for our democracy.

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