Matt Hancock, Health Secretary and grubby pink tie owner, has now been on our screens for over nine months, from televised daily coronavirus briefings to interviews on prestigious news shows. Matt has become a consistent presence, more so than any other MP that I can think of. In our lockdown boredom we’ve listened to Matt, hoping that he’d tell us some good news: that we could go outside again, see other people again, shops could open again.
However, Matt has rarely been allowed to deliver good news. That privilege has been reserved for the Prime Minister. If Matt’s scheduled to be the one making the announcement, I now prepare for the worst.
From the beginning of the crisis Matt has been the most visible of our politicians. He’s been interviewed by seasoned journalists on flagship television shows such as the Andrew Marr Show, Good Morning Britain and Sky News over 20 times since March alone; his ‘emotional’ performance at watching the first person to get vaccinated will certainly be remembered (even if in meme-form) for many years.
Matt has also taken on at least 33 of the televised coronavirus briefings. 24 of these were during the first four months of the pandemic, when the briefings were actually held daily. This means Matt led 27% of the briefings, the rest being shared by Boris Johnson and the other 22 members of the Cabinet.
But as we got used to Matt’s increasingly haggard face and dirty tie, the pressures on him not only from the public, but from his own party, seem to have increased.
Cast your mind back to the beginning of June at 5pm, as Matt leads yet another daily briefing. During the presentation, he seems to be almost dissociated, which you would be, if you’re having to warn the country just days after lifting restrictions that another national lockdown could be reimposed. But it’s in the subsequent questions that his façade slips, the bags under his eyes seem to grow, and the deadness in his eyes gets that bit more dead.
Fast forward to 20 December and the Andrew Marr Show, where Matt faces questioning from Marr about the new Covid-19 variant. Matt’s voice has become, if possible, more quavery, as if he’s on the verge of tears at any moment. His eyes, which were lifeless back in June, now resemble black holes.
Matt Hancock has clearly been set up as the fall guy for the government, to break bad news, to take the criticism and the questioning and the people’s anger. If England is a stage, Boris Johnson is Prospero, and Matt his Caliban.
Because it is only this explanation, if an abstract one, that explains for me just why Matt has consented to being the scapegoat at all, and more importantly, why he has continued to be so for so long.
The idea that Matt is still taking Andrew Marr’s punches for something like a noble sense of responsibility to his country is laughable. Whilst Matt may have entered politics with these aspirations, I find it hard to believe that morals have kept him in his place for so long.
There is the possibility that Matt simply never had much, if any, of an identity in the first place. Several commentators regularly refer to Matt as the ‘doormat’, and for good reason: he has a chronic inability to make an opinion or point sound like his own idea. He also struggles to be heard or even seen; he must be one of the most talked over politicians in a long time (excepting of course, women in politics, but perhaps this is another point: Matt seems to be thought of as practically a woman in Cabinet, therefore secondary and disposable).
But the most likely reason for Matt’s continued presence on our TV screens is his obedience to Boris Johnson. Who else is directing Matt to take on these interviews, which are not only gruelling but also catastrophic for his future political career? Matt sits on the red sofa, across from Andrew Marr or Piers Morgan, simply as the government’s representative, and therefore a punchbag for the public.
I’m certainly angry at the government, for their inability to learn from their mistakes, their chronic lack of foresight, and completely illogical prioritising. And all that anger gets directed to the most visible government politician: the one who is on flagship news programmes four times in December alone.
Matt Hancock, more than anyone else in the UK, must want this virus to end. Apparently, he’s booked a holiday for next summer, in Cornwall. I expect he would rather a holiday much further away from his boss. Maybe Australia? Or preferably the moon.
Words by Anna Willis