How did Matt Hancock survive? Indeed, this protégé of George Osborne has not merely survived the purge of the Cameroons which took place as soon as Theresa May entered Downing Street.
Hancock has prospered. Under the new regime, he has risen into the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where he has just helped with the tricky task of defusing the Leveson problem.
At Westminster, he inspires a mixture of admiration, amusement, astonishment and frank dislike, and rival theories abound to explain how he got where he is today.
In these rough notes, no pretence is made of having penetrated to the heart of the Hancock mystery. As always, one attempts, when composing these profiles, to suggest profitable avenues of enquiry to younger and fitter students of modern politics as they set to work on their doctorates.
Hancock is a modern man, and that is one reason why he has bubbled to the surface. He has a capacity, and willingness, to express unbounded, if painfully bland enthusiasm for any modish cause – a valuable quality in a Culture Secretary.
He is particularly enthusiastic about digital transformation, and is reckoned by Whitehall warriors to have done well to keep it out of the hands of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, where it could equally well belong.
In February he brought out the Matt Hancock app, which produced a burst of derision at his expense, with even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer making jokes about it.
One of Hancock’s many useful characteristics is an ability to get people to laugh with him, rather than at him.
Beneath the laughter could be detected a note of respect. Even his critics saw the app might turn out to be something of a masterstroke, which would help him to engage with his constituents in West Suffolk, while proving that he possesses the unselfconscious egotism shared by many of the most successful users of social media.
For Hancock is exceptionally ambitious. Almost everyone who has worked with him notices this. He was recruited in May 2005 by George Osborne, who at the age of 33 had become, in the last months of Michael Howard’s leadership of the Conservative Party, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was putting together a team of high-grade advisers.
Hancock was born in 1978 in Cheshire, where his parents ran a software company which nearly went bankrupt. As he later recalled:
“I was deeply affected by the recession of the early Nineties, when my family business was days away from going under and it was not only my parents’ jobs that were on the line but the 30 or so people who they employed, and every day we waited for the key cheque to come in, and our house was on the line, and eventually it did — and that was seared across my soul.”
He was sent to King’s School Chester, an ancient independent foundation, read PPE at Exeter College, Oxford, took an M Phil in Economics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and obtained a job at the Bank of England.
Such a record might suggest an interest in a career as an economist, or a backroom boy. But Hancock soon demonstrated he was more interested in power, and in becoming a practical politician, than in economic theory.
He was a founder member of the “small, merry band” round Osborne, which soon included Rupert Harrison and Rohan Silva. At the end of 2005, David Cameron was elected as the new Conservative leader and instituted an ambitious programme of modernisation.
Hancock became Osborne’s chief of staff, sat with Ed Llewellyn (who played the same role for Cameron) in the room between their bosses’ rooms, attended the morning meetings in Cameron’s room and the preparation sessions for Prime Minister’s Questions.
“He was there throughout,” a Cameroon says. “He really was part of the gang.” A shadow minister of those years, pursuing a less gilded path, recalls:
“I knew him as one of the SpAds who wanted more power than shadow ministers. If Matt said something, it was his master’s voice. It carried more authority than, say, Hugo Swire.”
A mandarin who saw much of him at this period found him “slightly less charming in the privacy of Whitehall” than in public encounters:
“I have to say I never took to the man. Clearly able in a Bank of England sort of way. But devoid of principle, transparently ambitious and pleased with himself beyond measure.”
Another observer recalls Hancock at one of the late-night receptions at the Conservative Party Conference, spotting Andrew Neil entering the room, and immediately abandoning the two women to whom he was talking in order to go and meet the great journalist.
For the 2010 election, Hancock was anxious to find a safe parliamentary seat, and in January of that year he gained selection for West Suffolk, defeating Natalie Elphicke by 88 votes to 81 in the final round, and also beating Sam Gyimah, Sheila Lawlor, Lucille Nicholson and Anthony Frieze.
In George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor, published in 2012, Janan Ganesh expounded the difference between Hancock and Harrison, who took over as Osborne’s chief of staff and was already the main source of economic advice to him:
“Hancock and Harrison have similarly powerful minds but quite distinct personalities. In many ways, Hancock resembles Osborne… He has a pitiless focus on the political bottom line and a pugnacious approach to his Labour opponents. His Threadneedle erudition vies with a more martial spirit, and does not always win. Harrison, for all that he has been politicised by years of Osborne’s tutelage, remains an economist who does politics rather than a political operator who also knows about economics.”
Before long, in September 2012, Hancock climbed onto the lowest rung of the ministerial ladder, becoming Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Skills in the same reshuffle which saw Sajid Javid and Esther McVeigh enter the Government.
Hancock, under Osborne’s patronage, was clearly a rising star, and was interviewed for The Spectator by James Forsyth:
“When I ask how he responds to the criticism that today’s Tory party is full of career politicians who have little experience outside politics and are too young, he replies: ‘Well, I remind people that Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the finest statesmen our country has ever seen … and likewise William Pitt became prime minister in his twenties, and both of these men achieved great heights over their careers.’ I’m tempted to suggest that this means that Hancock is running behind schedule, but think better of it.
“There is another figure from the Tory pantheon with whom Hancock feels a special connection. ‘I have a huge affinity for Disraeli, not least because I come from a provincial background and I went to the local village school and have arrived latterly in Westminster where I’m trying to ….’ At this point I feel obliged to interrupt; the idea that this Oxford PPE graduate is some kind of outsider seems a bit much. My response prompts a flash of anger from Hancock: ‘I worked bloody hard to get there,’ he snaps.”
These are exalted comparisons for an MP of two years’ experience to venture upon, and confirm the rather naive ambition displayed by Hancock at this time.
There was at this period much ill-feeling among Conservative MPs who felt that because they were not friends of George, they were getting nowhere. At an away-day for Tory MPs in the autumn of 2014, an unkind joke at Hancock’s expense went down well:
“The Prime Minister led riotous laughter when Yorkshire Tory MP Philip Davies mocked Osborne’s chief ally, Business Minister Matthew Hancock, saying: ‘Anyone tempted to lick George Osborne’s backside should be careful because if you go too far you will find the soles of Matt Hancock’s shoes in the way.’
“Cameron was still chuckling the next day, telling MPs after breakfast: ‘I hope you have all got the unpleasant image of Matt Hancock out of your minds.’”
But Hancock was seizing the chance to prove himself as a man of government, which he proceeded to do, receiving repeated promotions, and after the Conservative victory in the 2015 general election becoming Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, with the right to attend Cabinet.
A colleague who saw much of him at this time says:
“He’s quite knowledgeable about macro-economic things but also very interested in social policy and the modern world of technology. So he’s in tune with the the times.
“He’s not a great orator. He’s not a poet. He’s somebody who thinks and dissects and makes things happen. He was certainly a very good and effective administrator.”
In June 2016, this upward progress was brought to a sudden halt by the result of the EU Referendum. Cameron resigned, May won the leadership election, Osborne was sacked, and so were the other leading Cameroons, rooted out with exemplary severity by the new Prime Minister and her two main advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
As one leading Cameroon remarked this week: “We were all out and he miraculously survived.” For although Sajid Javid, Greg Hands and Claire Perry, all of whom had enjoyed Osborne’s patronage, remained in the Government, none of them had been as close to Osborne as Hancock had.
Another close observer says: “Hancock was clinging to the edge of the cliff with Fiona Hill stamping on his fingers.”
How did he manage to hold on? His decision to back May for the leadership at a reasonably early stage must have helped, but some people are convinced he was saved by Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, who had become a close ally while Hancock was running the Cabinet Office.
Others deny this, and point out that other friends of Heywood were thrown overboard. They posit that Hancock was just junior enough to survive, for May did not attempt to purge the lower ministerial ranks.
One reason why Hancock stayed in office is that he decided to swallow his pride and accept demotion to the post of Minister of State for Digital and Culture, with no right to attend Cabinet.
It is possible that he has such faith in his ability to run things that he thought as long as he remained in a position to demonstrate this, he would very soon be promoted again.
And one may infer that he did not feel crushed by his experience, for he at once made a great fuss about losing his ministerial car, and somehow managed to regain the use of one.
He is not an influential figure, for he does not have much of a following in the parliamentary party. But at the age of 39, he could have a long political life ahead of him, and he is good at not ruffling feathers and displaying a sort of unostentatious amiability which helps to calm things down.
Hancock is capable of dealing with tangled questions which could go very badly wrong. He wished, rightly, to draw a line under the Leveson Inquiry, but also went through some complicated manoeuvres to ensure that compulsory low-cost arbitration of complaints against the press, and prominent apologies when complaints are upheld, are part of the settlement.
He writes occasional lucid pieces for ConservativeHome, for example about the challenge in the digital age of measuring productivity correctly, plays cricket with enthusiasm, has ridden as an amateur in charity races at Newmarket and seems unabashed by giving dreadful karaoke performances of songs such as Don’t Stop Me Now.
Hancock has not been stopped, but what, apart from digital transformation, does he stand for? It is possible even he does not know. It is also possible that for a Tory man of government, this is not a fatal handicap.