When your luck is out, your luck is out. And right now Matt Hancock can’t seem to buy himself an even break. Dominic Cummings and his cabinet colleagues are lining him up as the fall guy for when the coronavirus crisis eventually ends – no point getting rid of him any sooner or someone else might have to also take the rap – and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Hell, he doesn’t even get any credit for having survived the coronavirus without much fuss. Brave Boris still gets a free pass for having gone into intensive care, but Hancock’s recovery is by and large ignored. He’s just the schmuck that has to suck it up. He’s in way too deep to get away with saying what he’d always really thought: that Johnson was never fit to be prime minister. So he can only look on in envy at Jeremy Hunt for having had an uncharacteristic fit of self-worth by turning down a cabinet job and reinventing himself as one of the good guys. Jezza, the man who did more than anyone to cut back the NHS, now on the side of the angels. Who’da thunk it?
There was a time when Matt’s eyes used to gleam with enthusiasm. When he believed he could really make a difference. That he had a sense of purpose. Tigger used to bounce out of bed, believing he was the man to teach the NHS to sing in perfect harmony. Now he knows better and there’s only furtiveness and suspicion in his every move. Every day can only be worse than the one before. So when he was told he would be doing the morning media round to clean up after Boris’s latest mess – you’d have thought the prime minister might know the difference between a virus and a vaccine – he knew what was in store.
Not that Downing Street hadn’t tried to make it easier for whatever poor sap drew the media short straw, by having refused to send a minister to be interviewed by Susanna Reid and Piers Morgan for the past 10 days. But Matt is now so far gone that he views even the comparatively less threatening BBC Breakfast with deep suspicion. All presenter Louise Minchin wanted was some basic answers to some fairly straightforward questions. Why was it OK to meet in a garden centre and not a garden? Why was it OK for a childminder to look after kids but not other family members?
Yet right from the off, Matt looked and sounded like a man on the edge. Just one wrong word and his eyes would go ice-cold. There was none of the usual charm, the going the extra mile to make himself plain. Just a series of bad-tempered, monosyllabic grunts. Hell, he was sick of hearing how bad things were for the rest of the country. How about someone think of just how shit he was feeling right now?
Things got worse when Hancock moved on to Radio 4’s Today programme where Martha Kearney was being the model of politeness. If confusing Monday and Wednesday was the worst mistake the government had made then things must be pretty damn good, Matt snapped. A nation blinked. Hancock never does sarcasm in public. No more Mr Nice Guy. And it wasn’t a one-off aberration. He carried on with the same snippiness throughout, before his speech collapsed into meaningless disconnection. “People understand the message,” he said. “People understand what ‘stay alert’ means, it means, er, and people understand that together we need to control the virus.”
It would have been better for Matt if the interview had been wrapped up there and then. Sadly, he re-found language in time to say we should be jolly proud that only 25% of our deaths had been in care homes, as that compared very favourably with other countries worldwide. Given that 10,000 have died in care homes that must rather imply that our death rate in hospitals and the community must be totally horrific compared to other countries. Whatever. The pathos was tangible. Even when Matt is trying to be helpful he still can’t stop himself from handing over evidence for the prosecution. He is a man so near to the edge he can’t even prevent himself from ganging up on himself. He needs a therapist urgently.
Yet quantity theory has a way of evening things out. And Hancock’s bad luck is proving to be Rishi Sunak’s good luck. Everything the chancellor touches turns to gold right now. Which is just as well, as he’s spending money like it’s going out of style. Little more than two months ago, Rishi was earmarked for a B-list cabinet post in the Treasury but after Sajid Javid’s hissy, he has found himself in the top job and blessed with access all areas to the magic money tree. Austerity? What austerity?
His first Brexit budget proved to be little more than spare change compared to his eight – or is it nine? – subsequent coronavirus budgets. Today he was back in the Commons to answer an urgent question on extension of the government’s furlough scheme. And Rishi was all smiles. Because though Boris doesn’t have a clue how to stop the virus he has no qualms about spending money he doesn’t know he hasn’t got. So the chancellor got to take the credit for extending the furlough scheme for another four months at the same rate of 80%.
Here his charmed life continued. Because even though there were gaping holes in his statement – how much of the 80% would employers be expected to contribute? Would bosses use the end of July as an excuse to make some workers redundant? What about the self-employed? – no one seemed to want to take him up on any of them. Rishi had just casually blown another £50bn. A 40th birthday present to himself. Remember the fuss about the £13bn annual contribution to the EU? No one else does. That’s how deep in the shit we’re in. But Rishi keeps floating to the top. When your luck’s in, you ride that train to its very last stop.